Beginning of the End of the SAT?

Oct. 7, 2006 — -- Tens of thousands of high school students across the country are preparing for next Saturday's Scholastic Aptitude Test, the outcome of which largely determines who will succeed in the highly competitive college and university admissions process.

But at a growing number of the country's best liberal arts colleges -- one fourth of the top 100, as measured by U.S. News and World Report -- the SAT has outlived its usefulness. It is no longer required for admission.

Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, was one of the first to drop the requirement 22 years ago.

"The SAT itself was not a fair indication of ability in all cases," said Elaine Tuttle Hansen, president of Bates.

"The SAT wasn't telling us about students who performed well on a variety of other measures," she added. "We wanted to look at all the information that comes in an admissions folder and really pick out the students who could make the most of this opportunity."

More Schools Dropping SATs

Bowdoin and Bates were the first to drop SATs -- and the ACT, largely popular in the Midwest -- as admissions requirements. Providence and Knox College are the latest. They join a group of schools including Mount Holyoke, Middlebury and Hamilton. Membership is growing, in part because of a 20-year-long study by Bates.

Over two decades, Bates tracked the classroom performance of those who submitted SAT scores and those who did not. The study concluded that the submission of SAT scores did not predict success and the absence of scores did not predict failure.

The four-year grade point average of those who submitted SATs was only .05 of a point less than those who did not. Graduation rates at Bates were only .10 less. The study also concluded that SAT submitters did seem to score better on standardized tests.

To require the SAT "doesn't make any sense," said Bill Hiss, who was dean of admissions at Bates when it dropped the requirement, and who now is the college's vice president for external affairs.

"We're artificially truncating the pool of people who would be successful," Hiss said.

"The SAT doesn't tell us about imagination," Hiss added. "It doesn't tell us about self discipline. It very often masks the background of kids coming from different cultures."

Bates Alum Benefited from Policy

Lien Le, a Vietnamese immigrant, scored just 400 -- putting her just in the 15th percentile -- on the critical verbal component of her SAT, a score that normally would have denied her admission to a top college. Thinking back to the night before her SATs, Le remembered her newly arrived family scrambling to find number two pencils so she could take the exam.

Today, 28-year old Le is a doctor, finishing her residency at the Boston University Medical Center. She was accepted at Bates and graduated magna cum laude, majoring in biology.

"I wonder if I would be here right now" if the SAT score had foiled her admission, Le said.

Sitting in a conference room near where she works in oncology and hematology, she added, "Being accepted to a really good college had tremendous consequences."

College Board Defends Test

High school counselors and college administrators have long complained the SAT is culturally and economically biased, which led to a revamped, longer test. The College Board, which administers the SAT, has faced a drop in scores and problems with scoring. Still, the College Board said disenchantment with the test is not justified.

"The SAT continues to measure those academic skills which continue to be necessary for college success," said College Board Vice President James Montoya. "The SAT, at its heart, is basic."

What about the trend to eliminate it as an admissions requirement?

"There are always going to be institutions," Montoya said, "that reflect a different kind of educational environment and admissions process that allows them to look at a student's successes other than test scores."

The College Board points to large major universities that still require the SAT and the ACT. On the sunny campus of the University of Southern California, admissions officials had more than 31,000 applications for this year's incoming freshman class and an acceptance rate of about 28 percent.

"In the admissions process, you don't want to use [the SAT] as the only thing you're looking at," said Jerry Lucido, USC's vice provost. "But as a part of the admissions process, it gives you valuable information."

Current Students Weigh In

Bates gets about 5,000 applications each year, which produces a freshman class of about 450.

In a white frame home just off the school's leafy campus, four admissions officers recently read early admissions applications. They examined multiple submissions from each student -- essay, high school record, personal interview.

Elsewhere on campus, students uniformly agreed with administrators' decision not to look at the SAT.

"My SAT scores didn't show what I could do in college," said Alex Chou, 21, a senior from rural Maine. "I felt my academic performance in high school was a better judge."

Adam Kayce, a 22-year-old senior from Easton, Mass., said, "It's a little bit too much to have one test say what you're capable of."

Meghan Getz, a 21-year-old senior from Grand Rapids, Mich., said, "For so much emphasis to be placed on one day, I don't think it's fair when you've worked really hard for four years in high school."

Colleges Happy Without SATs

At Bates and elsewhere, admissions officers say eliminating the testing requirement has increased both the size and diversity of the applicant pool.

Knox, in Galesburg, Ill., just welcomed its first freshman class not required to submit SAT scores.

As to the difference on campus, President Roger Taylor said there has been "none, except we're receiving more applications from a more diverse group.

"This is one of the most diverse first-year classes in the college's history," he added.

Twenty-two percent of Knox's freshmen are students of color, 22 percent come from low-income families and 23 percent are the first in their family to attend college.

"[The SAT] reflects affluence," Taylor said. "I'm not sure it reflects academic potential."

Other test critics note expensive SAT preparation courses are difficult to come by for poor and rural students.

According to Bates president Hansen, college admission is "about looking at multiple factors and sending a signal to students to take charge of the process -- to not worry about one day, but to look at their whole lives and all the wonderful things they've done and tell us about them."

That might help reduce some of the anxiety building as next Saturday's SAT testing day approaches.

Click here to see Bates' two-decade study on the SATs.

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