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Downgrading the SAT

April 24, 2006

BACK IN THE 1930s, when colleges first started using the SAT, its purpose was egalitarian: to identify bright but poor young students for scholarships and make an elite university education available to those beyond the moneyed class.

How times change. Instead of being the great equalizer, the SAT has become a linchpin of the system it was intended to break. Instead of helping colleges and universities discover new talent, it has become just another credential for privileged kids to fight over.

And fight they do. Earlier this month, a student in New York filed a lawsuit, now a class action, against the College Board, which owns the SAT, saying he got a lower score than he deserved because his test was incorrectly graded. Almost half a million students took the test last October, and the board says about 5,000 received incorrect scores. (About 600 of them got higher marks than they should have. Naturally, none of them are suing.)

Troubling as these mistakes are -- and it's likely that many others are never discovered because the College Board charges $50 to double-check a test -- errors in the admissions process are not unusual. The greater problem is placing so much emphasis on a test that is vulnerable to being coached and says little about a student's ability to succeed in college.

SAT prep classes and tutoring, which can cost thousands of dollars, can help students raise their scores by a crucial couple hundred points on a 2,400-point exam. But studies have found that the SAT, on its own, is no better, and quite possibly weaker, at indicating future academic success than a student's grades, class rank, coursework or other information that colleges commonly take into account.

It is time to consider whether the test has outlived its usefulness.

Several elite schools have semi-abandoned the SAT. At Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts, one of the prestigious Seven Sisters colleges, applicants have the option of not submitting their SAT scores. Obviously, students who submit their scores did well on the test. Yet follow-up studies there and at other colleges have found that both sets of students do equally well in college.

It's encouraging that some colleges and universities have reached the conclusion that the test isn't so important after all. If only high school students, and their parents, could convince themselves of that too.

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