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I am more than a number: The case against SAT scores in college admissions

Over two million students take the SAT test every year, making it the most widely-used college admissions test in the country. One of the most the most pressure-packed tests a young adult can take, the SAT brings back memories of stress and anxiety for many students. The American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America survey reported 31 percent of teens feeling overwhelmed and another 30 percent feeling sad or depressed as a result of stress, pointing to school and school-related activities as a key cause. With stress levels rivaling those of adults, students could really benefit from eliminating some stress-inducers from their daily lives. Considering the SAT is a proven to be reflection of socioeconomic status (SES) and a poor indicator of success in college, it is time that the test gets removed from the college admissions process once and for all.

The belief that the standardized test is the “great leveler” that sets all students on an equal playing field for evaluation is a huge misconception. It has been empirically proven year after year that performance on SAT and ACT tests is positively correlated to a student’s SES by College Board data and National Center for Fair and Open Testing research. Thus, those who are already advantaged in education are given another leg up in college admissions.

The reasons for the correlation are not difficult to uncover. Money buys expensive SAT practice test books, test prep classes, private college counselors, etc. While there are a myriad of factors that create SES-related inequality in education, the SAT test in particular is a measure of whether a student can afford to “learn the tricks” of the tests. Even signing up for the test costs about $50. While students can receive aid from the government, the fee waivers only cover two tests, while others who can afford it can and do take the test three or more times. The College Board claims that its new 2016 format for the test will be “less coachable.” However, now the essay prompt will be published beforehand, enabling students with writing tutors to craft an entire, edited response before they even step into the testing center. Regardless of changes in the focus of the test and content, test prep agencies will adapt their products to teach to the new test and offer the same preparation advantages as before.

Regardless of the “coachability” of the test, stereotype threat disadvantages minorities at the start. Identifying as black, female or any other identity associated with negative stereotypes in education before taking a test causes test takers’ inhibiting doubts to increase. The very tangible process of bubbling in a disadvantaging identity at the beginning of a test like the SAT causes test takers to perform worse than when they do not self-identify. Again, the privileged in society are further advantaged on the SAT.

GPA is a much better “standard” indicator for a student’s success in the context of their school and the academic opportunities offered there. Standardized tests do not take into account that a student may be intelligent in other academic areas not covered on the test, while a transcript will reflect these academic strengths. Even though GPA is not a standard measure across schools, admissions officers can understand how to value a GPA from a certain school because they have access to annual school reports about class size, GPA distribution, courses offered, etc. A recent study published on the National Association for College Admission Counseling website confirms GPA as a viable indicator of success, finding no difference between graduation rates of students who did and did not submit SAT scores at SAT-optional colleges. Rather, students with low testing scores and higher GPAs fared better than students with higher scores and weaker GPAs.

Admissions officers can also look to teacher recommendations and personal essays to get a sense of students’ personalities, challenges they may have overcome, and their thought processes. Extracurricular activities further showcase a student’s intangible qualities, such as leadership, innovation, a desire to change the world — the same qualities outlined in the Stanford acceptance letter as primary reasons for admittance to the University. A lack of standardized testing scores would therefore not leave officers with insufficient information about the candidate; over 100 schools have been operating admissions successfully on an SAT-optional basis already.

Stanford sees applicant pools of 40,000 or more. More than 5.07 percent of applicants have SAT scores in the 2,200-2,400 range, so the 2,000 or so who make the final cut must have done something exceptional other than receiving a perfect SAT score to make themselves stand out. Stanford has the opportunity to be the first elite institution to formally eliminate the SAT from its admissions considerations and inspire others leaders in higher education to follow. Without SAT scores, higher education could return its focus on identifying true, deep and brilliant thinkers and developing them to their fullest potential instead of rewarding the most “excellent sheep.”

Contact Kelsey Page at kpage2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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