SAT or NOT? 4

Our honors college does not use the SATs in selecting our students (although PSU does use it and we only select among those who have already been admitted to PSU). It is now quite the rage to move away from using SATs and the Chronicle of Higher Education has two commentary pieces this morning on the subject from faculty who recently retook the test. I am sharing this mostly because I liked the Chronice’s commentary in their summation presented in the daily email (but I am sure they are worth reading as well, a subscription is required).


POTENTIAL: Do standardized tests do a decent job of assessing
students’ knowledge? An associate professor at Temple University
took both the SAT and the ACT last winter in an effort to find
out. Suffice it to say that he’s not sold.

ABILITIES: A professor at Princeton University also retook the
SAT, and he emerged with a more favorable impression. (Scoring
an 800 on the math section probably didn’t hurt.)

From the “no” position (it is not stated, but it is implied that he took the regular exams with high school students):

I found that the tests emphasized speed and stamina over knowledge, and they failed to provide an adequate measure of what a student might actually understand.

The SAT comprised 10 sections that haphazardly whipsawed the mind from writing to reading to math. I started by writing an essay, then spent the remainder of the test zigzagging back and forth among mathematics, reading, and grammar. Just as I’d fallen into a mathematical groove, it was time to move on to the reading section. A second math section, or perhaps a grammar test, might follow a reading section. Moreover, I had about one minute to answer each question — almost no time for any form of critical analysis or contemplation. What went through my mind? Keep up the pace.

From the “yes” position (this professor only took the practice exam in his office rather than sitting for a proctored exam):

What did I learn from the experiment?

For one, the scores seemed to be a good reflection of how I stand in comparison with when I was in high school. (In other words, I think I’m much closer to Princeton students verbally than I was then.) Also, it seems correct to me that I scored lower on the reading part than on the writing part and performed best on the quantitative part. But mainly what I learned is that the SAT is a challenging, well-thought-out exam.

Of course, the test is limited in scope, as it must be given that it requires only a few hours of one’s time. It is simply impossible to measure every dimension of a secondary-school education in so short a time. For example, the math portion tests only the most elementary topics of algebra and geometry. With only 54 math questions, it simply can’t assess all levels of mastery. Given the limited scope, however, the SAT raises a well-conceived set of questions.

Prof. Vanderbei, the faculty member in favor of the test, seems more impressed with the test as a construct than as a diagnostic tool, able to predict the ability of a student. Prof. Harper, who believes the tests are deeply flawed, pointed out that in high school he scored highest on the math and only switched to English and journalism in his sophomore year. Had he stayed with the test’s assessment of himself he believes he would have been a disgruntled “number cruncher” rather than a very sucessful journalist.


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4 thoughts on “SAT or NOT?

    • Chris Brady Post author

      Odd thing is that although I took the GREs (I have no clue how I did, but I am sure it wasn’t very well) none of my graduate programs needed them. Granted, two were Oxford… Did you all know that the UK instituted the SATs this year? And they are already working to get rid of them.

  • Andrew

    I think it is time to bring back real entrance exams to the college application process. Institutions could make exams of their own or collectively agree on tests — here I am thinking about Ivy League schools agreeing on one type of exam, each state creating their own and so on — and then having them administered online. This way students could take the exams through their HS and it would actually test them on their knowledge of material instead of their ability to guess which word goes into a blank.

    • Chris Brady Post author

      Andrew, that is why we, and the Ivies and many others, now place so much emphasis upon essays. We have three on our application and in conjunction with a careful read of the HS transcript we are able to select a very solid and successful group of students.