Opinion Schools

College Bound: The More Things Change … Return of the SAT

We-Ha.com will be publishing a series of essays/blogs/reflections on the issue of going to college – primarily a set of thoughts and musings, along with some practical advice, intended to support students and parents as they embark on this journey. While many of our readers are experts in this topic, many others are less knowledgeable and have little outside support. We hope this is helpful to all readers as they go through the various stages of getting into and getting something out of college.

Adrienne Leinwand Maslin. Courtesy photo

By Adrienne Leinwand Maslin

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” The more things change the more they stay the same. The saying was coined in 1849 by Jean-Baptist Alphonse Karr, a French writer. It’s true for fashion fads. Skinny jeans. Wide-legged jeans. Bell-bottoms. Don’t get rid of any of it because it will come around again. Does anyone eat frozen yogurt anymore? I would if I could find it! Don’t worry; that, too, will be back.

And does anyone remember the SAT? That staple of the college admissions process? The bane of many a high school student’s academic experience? That much-maligned exam that compares poorly to such things as head lice, income tax preparation, and counting the number of digits to the right of the decimal point in pi? That dreaded test that many colleges have determined would be optional and many more made it so during the pandemic? The SAT might be making a comeback. “Plus ca change …”

In my previous article, Admissions Through an Equity Lens (July 11, 2022), I said that the permanence of, or at least longevity of, the optional SAT was in question; that we would just have to wait and see. And we still will. But The New York Times of Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024 had an article, “The Misguided War on the SAT,” by David Leonhardt, that cites some stunning research. In it Leonhardt discusses research made available in the summer of 2023 by the group Opportunity Insights which includes Raj Chetty, Director and Professor of Economics at Harvard University, David J. Deming, Professor of Education and Economics at Harvard University, and John Friedman, Co-Director and Professor of Economics at Brown University.

The research looks at the Ivy Plus colleges – the eight Ivy League institutions including Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale, along with Stanford, MIT, Duke, and the University of Chicago and showed “little relationship between high school grade point average and success in college … (and) a strong relationship between test scores and later success. … Critically, the study also found that students from different socioeconomic backgrounds who have similar test scores have ‘virtually identical’ college GPAs.”

The researchers have stellar credentials and are highly respected in their disciplines. Opportunity Insights’ mission is to “identify barriers to economic opportunity and develop scalable solutions that will empower people throughout the United States to rise out of poverty and achieve better life outcomes.”

Similar research conducted in 2020 by a faculty task force from the University of California system also concluded that SAT/ACT scores, not high school grade point averages, were better at predicting the GPAs of first-year students. When used in conjunction with high school grades, the prediction rate was double the rate for high school grades alone. This is primarily attributed to grade inflation which has become quite pronounced in recent years. (In this case, however, the system chancellor decided to eliminate standardized tests until fall 2024 while the system creates its own entry test.)

MIT was the first prominent institution of higher education to reinstate the SAT claiming that, “After careful consideration, we have decided to reinstate our SAT/ACT requirement for future admissions cycles. Our research shows standardized tests help us better assess the academic preparedness of all applicants, and also help us identify socioeconomically disadvantaged students who lack access to advanced coursework or other enrichment opportunities that would otherwise demonstrate their readiness for MIT. We believe a requirement is more equitable and transparent than a test-optional policy.”

Dartmouth was the first Ivy League school to reinstate standardized testing followed by Yale and Brown. All, basically, for the same reasons. Since then other institutions including Georgetown and the University of Texas at Austin have followed suit.

The University of Texas (UT) also cited grade inflation as a reason to return to an SAT/ACT requirement. Officials there claimed it was “crowded” at the top with so many students achieving A grades and that a standardized test helps to differentiate among them.

“UT Austin shared data for its most recent first-year class that was admitted under the previous test-optional policy. The college analyzed the grades achieved by those students, dividing the class into those who had opted to submit SAT scores and those who had opted out. UTs first-year class is considerably larger than other colleges considered in this post. So, the data may be more meaningful. ‘Of 9,217 first-year students enrolled in 2023,’ UT wrote, ‘those who opted in had an estimated average GPA of 0.86 grade points higher during their first fall semester, controlling for a wide range of factors, including high school class rank and GPA.'”

FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing has a different take on the issue. In its report, “Why College Admissions Should Remain Test Optional/Test Free (Despite What the New York Times Says)” the authors, Harry Feder, Executive Director and Akil Bello, Senior Director, believe there is too much reliance on the SAT and ACT and that the test discriminates against those students – primarily students of color – who are from disadvantaged backgrounds and who don’t have the money to pay for test prep courses. The authors of the report were incensed that The New York Times would put David Leonhardt’s story on the front page.

Some history. The first SAT was administered to high school students in 1926; its precursor was the IQ test, created in 1905 by Alfred Binet. Binet and Stanford University professor Lewis Terman believed in the idea of an “intelligence quotient” and that this test could measure a person’s innate capacity. Robert Yerkes, a Harvard professor, administered the IQ test to nearly two million army recruits during World War I, thus collecting a large amount of data.

One of Yerkes’ assistants, Carl Campbell Brigham, a Princeton University psychology professor and eugenicist, believed Yerkes’ Army Alpha test paralleled society as a whole. That is, some people had innately more intelligence than others; one’s environment was not a factor, and, in general, people of color did not have the level of innate ability as whites. Brigham made the test more difficult and administered it to several thousand high schoolers who were applying to college. President James Bryant Conant of Harvard University was extremely interested in the SAT and wanted to use it to distinguish among scholarship applicants. He also wanted to broaden the applicant pool beyond the private schools that comprised Harvard’s traditional feeder schools. Conant “thought it measured pure intelligence, regardless of the quality of the taker’s high school education.”

In 1938, all members of the College Board (founded in 1900 as the College Entrance Examination Board) used the SAT as a way to identify scholarship recipients and in 1942, the SAT became the only admissions test for all applicants.

The SAT has gone through a multitude of changes over the years in content, name, scoring, and format. A recent major change had to do with what was considered the built-in bias of the SAT. One important contributor to this endeavor was Roy O. Freedle, a research psychologist for the Educational Testing Service (ETS) – which develops and administers the SAT for the College Board – for 31 years. In 2003 an article by Freedle was published in the Harvard Education Review that argued “that the most important test in America, the SAT, was racially biased. Previous work on bias in the SAT, he wrote, had failed to point out that African-Americans were doing better on harder questions of the test than non-Hispanic whites with the same SAT scores. Minority students, along with culturally deprived whites with similarly hidden abilities, he argued, should have an assessment of their previously undiscovered talents shown to colleges so that they could get fairer decisions from admissions committees.”

I don’t think it is worth the time or effort to try to determine whose research is better, if that is even possible. I believe there is compelling evidence on both sides of the testing question. And the results have much to do with the group being sampled and the specific questions being asked. What is true for Ivy League institutions may not be true for other schools.

One question I would ask is whether there are other, better, predictors of college success that should be considered. In many respects the college admissions process is largely the same as it was 54 years ago when I applied for admission. High school grades, letters of recommendation, extracurricular and outside activities, the personal essay. Maybe an in-person interview, and, possibly, standardized tests. Of course there have been tweaks to the process over the years, largely to support diversity efforts. Taking a wholistic approach to evaluating applications is a common mantra nowadays at many colleges. I have to believe that over the years there has been considerable research on this issue. But, as times change and our society changes we need to continue to think about these things.

Not every elite college or university is reinstating the SAT. For now, Columbia University and the University of Chicago are not planning to require standardized tests while others, including Princeton, Stanford, Harvard, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania, are choosing to remain test-optional. The list of popular colleges below will give you a sense of the diversity of plans as of May 19, 2024.

So what’s a student to do? Take the SATs and submit the scores? Take the SATs and don’t submit them? Don’t take the SATs at all? If you are applying to a college that requires the SAT then the answer is obvious. If you do not wish to take the SAT – perhaps you feel the test will not be a true reflection of your abilities – you can limit your school choices to those that are test-optional or test-free. You can take the SAT and wait to submit your scores until you see how you did. There is no right or wrong choice and in my opinion it is not worth laboring over. Do remember, however, that SAT scores are sometimes used to determine placement in introductory courses such as English or math. As you consider colleges to apply to, be sure to read all of the information regarding standardized tests on the colleges’ websites.

If you are a regular reader of this column you will know that there are many colleges where you can thrive. Your choices are limited only by your own constraints – whether realistic or imagined. So enter the journey with confidence that whatever decision you make about taking the SAT, you still have the opportunity to land in a good place and bloom where you’re planted.

Text Box: Institution	Location	Test policy
Amherst College	Amherst, MA	Test-optional
Boston College	Boston, MA	Test-optional through 2024-25 cycle
Boston University	Boston, MA	Test-optional through spring 2026
Brown University	Providence, RI	Test-optional through 2023-24 cycle
Colby College 	Waterville, ME	Test-optional
Columbia University	New York, NY	Test-optional
Connecticut College	New London, CT	Test-optional
Cornell University	Ithaca, NY	Mix of test-optional, test-free
Dartmouth College	Hanover, NH	Test is required starting with 2024-25 cycle
Duke University	Durham, NC	Test-optional through the 2023-24 cycle
Elon University	Elon, NC	Test-optional
Georgetown University	Washington, DC	SAT/ACT Required
Ithaca College	Ithaca, NY	Test optional
Middlebury College	Middlebury, VT	Test-optional through 2025-26 cycle
New York University	New York, NY	Test-optional through 2024-2025 cycle
Oberlin College	Oberlin, OH	Test-optional through 2025-26 cycle
Providence College	Providence, RI	Test-optional
University of Bridgeport	Bridgeport, CT	Test-optional except for several specialized programs
University of Colorado	Boulder, CO	Test-optional
University of Connecticut	Storrs, CT	Test-optional through Fall 2026 cycle
University of Massachusetts	Amherst, MA	Test-optional
University of Vermont	Burlington, VT	Test-optional through Fall 2026
University of Virginia	Charlottesville, VA	Test-optional through Fall 2025


Adrienne Leinwand Maslin recently retired from a 45-year career in higher education administration. She has worked at public and private institutions, urban and rural, large and small, and two-year and four-year, and is Dean Emerita at Middlesex Community College. She has held positions in admissions, affirmative action, president’s office, human resources, academic affairs, and student affairs. Maslin has a BA from the University of Vermont, an MEd from Boston University, and a PhD from the University of Oregon. She is presently creating a TV/web-based series on life skills and social issues for 9-12 year olds believing that the more familiar youngsters are with important social issues the easier their transition to college and adulthood will be. Information about this series as well as contact information can be found at www.shesroxanne.com.

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