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Real SAT Ire...Really

By       Message Patrick Mattimore     Permalink
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View Ratings | Rate It Headlined to H3 11/30/08

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    A committee appointed by the National Association for College Admission Counseling has recommended that colleges take a hard look at whether they need to continue requiring the SAT I. That test is the primary standardized test used by admissions’ departments at competitive colleges.

    The committee's findings were a hot topic of conversation at the annual meeting of NACAC this fall in Seattle. This is not just another report. The committee was chaired by William Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admissions at Harvard.

    A problem with the NACAC report is that while it suggests that colleges reevaluate the use of all standardized exams, the authors strongly encouraged colleges to use standardized subject exams to evaluate applicants. Many commentators have used the NACAC report to justify arguments that colleges should abandon the SAT I (Reasoning Test) without explaining that the committee concurrently proposed that colleges should place greater emphasis on SAT IIs (Subject tests) or Advanced Placement exams.  

    Dean Fitzsimmons told a reporter from The Harvard Crimson that his university's internal studies have proven the efficacy of subject-test scores to predict academic success at Harvard. Fitzsimmons said the subject tests "have been better predictors than either high-school grades or the SAT" Reasoning test.

The NACAC report states in part:
“... colleges and universities may be better served by admission exams more closely linked to high school curriculum... including the College Board’s AP exams and Subject Tests as well as the International Baccalaureate examinations. What these tests have in common is that they...measure knowledge of subject matter covered in high school courses;” .
The report further recommends that:
“A possible future direction for college admission tests is the development of curriculum-based achievement tests designed in consultation with colleges, secondary schools and state and federal agencies. Such achievement tests have a number of attractive qualities. Their use in college admission sends a message to students that studying their course material in high school, not taking extracurricular test prep courses that tend to focus on test-taking skills, is the way to do well on admission tests and
succeed in a rigorous college curriculum.”

    The SAT subject tests differ from the SAT I in that the subject tests are designed to measure specific knowledge in one of five academic areas: English, history, mathematics, science, and foreign language. The subject tests are achievement tests of material that students should learn in high school. AP and IB tests cover an even broader swatch of subject matter material.
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    In contrast, the SAT I tests only English (including writing) and math, and only the math portion examines material students will have been expected to have studied in high school. The SAT I is intended to generally measure "critical-thinking skills" that students "need for academic success in college," according to the College Board. That test is an aptitude or intelligence test, designed to predict how well students will do once they get to college.

    Yet the SAT I measures neither a student's mastery of high-school subject content nor, by itself, does it do a very good job of predicting a student's future college performance. In fact, although they are highly subjective products of widely discrepant school systems and teachers, students' high-school grades better predict subsequent academic performance in college than the SAT reasoning test score does, according to research from the College Board and Saul Geiser, a research associate at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California at Berkeley.

    For over a decade, Mr. Geiser has been studying standardized tests, specifically related to subsequent performance by students enrolled at the University of California campuses. In a research paper released in July by the center at Berkeley, "Back to Basics: In Defense of Achievement (and Achievement Tests) in College Admissions," Mr. Geiser concluded that "admissions criteria that tap student mastery of curriculum content, such as high-school grades and performance on achievement tests, are stronger predictors of success in college and are fairer to low-income and minority applicants than tests of general reasoning such as the SAT."  Geiser found that "achievement tests were consistently superior to the SAT in predicting college outcomes, including outcomes for poor and minority students."

    The NACAC committee’s common sense recommendations should cause colleges everywhere to re-examine how they are using the SAT I to evaluate applicants. Hopefully, many of those colleges will drop the SAT I requirement and rely more heavily on subject tests.
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