The Scholastic Aptitude Test, a cause of perennial teen-age anxiety and a staple in the college admissions routine for five decades, is coming under new scrutiny in higher-education circles at the same time high schools and their students are assigning greater significance to this academic rite of passage.
Vermont's elite Middlebury College announced in April that it would no longer require applicants to take the SATs. Union College, a New York liberal arts institution that had required the test for more than 50 years, made a similar announcement a few weeks earlier. Bates College in Maine declared the SAT optional three years ago. Bowdoin College has not required scores since 1969.
College officials have raised several concerns about the test: It does not predict college performance as well as high school grades or subject-area achievement tests; low scores can unnecessarily discourage students from applying to certain schools; and minorities, women and students from low-income families consistently score below white males.
But many administrators said they were most concerned that the test has taken on undue significance among high school students and their parents. The result is high stress and increasingly popular, high-priced test-preparation courses that can give unfair advantage to students from middle- and upper-income families.
"We just got very dismayed at the amount of emotional energy being devoted to SATs by students and their parents," said Peter Blankman, spokesman for Union College. "It's almost become the tail that wags the educational dog."
The actions of a few schools can hardly be classified as a stampede: 1,600 institutions still use the SAT, and in the last decade, hundreds of institutions have begun to require the test. But decisions by these selective, Eastern colleges carry weight around the country. The move away from SATs also indicates that the longstanding internal deliberations among administrators about the pros and cons of standardized testing have intensified.
Several other voices are contributing to the debate. Students at Brown University organized and came close to passing a referendum in April calling for administrators to declare the test optional. The students, who vowed to organize similar protests on other campuses, claimed that the test is culturally biased and flawed as a predictor of scholastic success.
Also this spring, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a Cambridge-based public-interest group, released a study charging that women were losing millions of dollars in scholarships because they score an average of 61 points below men on the SAT.
Finally, in a report issued this year, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching urged institutions to drop standardized test scores as admissions requirements unless they are actually used as a yardstick in the selection process. Ernest L. Boyer, who heads the foundation, said two-thirds of the 30 institutions he studied rely only marginally on the scores but continue to require them to maintain "an aura of selectivity."
"If you don't use it, just to require students to go through this is not being fully fair," said Boyer, who recommended that a new system of assessment be developed for college admissions.
The College Board, which administers the test through the Educational Testing Service, agrees that high school grades are a better predictor of academic success, but argues that the prediction is even more accurate when SAT scores are combined with grades. The organization also offers 14 achievement tests designed to measure a student's knowledge of a particular subject, such as mathematics, history or a language.
Janice Gams, a spokeswoman for the College Board, said differences in minority and female test scores reflect differences in academic preparation, income and other factors.
"The SAT is not biased," she said, "it reflects variations in certain subgroups."
More Colleges Use Tests
She added that the actions making the test optional had been given "inordinate attention" in light of decisions at 400 colleges over the last nine years to begin using the test.
The SAT, which was taken by nearly 1.7 million students last year, is administered in a three-hour morning session. It is divided into two parts: 85 questions on the verbal section and 60 on the math section. Both are designed to measure ability more than achievement.
The results are used not only in the admissions process but also to counsel students on where they need assistance and as a means of placing them in appropriate courses.
The test was created in 1926, when the notion of measuring basic intelligence, rather than achievement, was in vogue. SATs grew to prominence in the postwar years as higher education boomed and college administrators sought ways to assess the wave of prospective students.