High School and College Counselors Debate The SAT Problem at Annual Conference
Echoing the recommendation of a Latino task force
that the SAT requirement for admission to the University of California
(UC) be dropped, several speakers at the fifty-third National
Association for College Admission Counseling conference declared their
opposition to standardized test requirements for college admission.
But they also noted how challenging, it would be to convince a system as large as the UC to change its policy.
The conference, attended by some 3,500 college and high school
counselors, addressed questions regarding the legitimacy of
standardized tests and the effects of recent legal challenges to
affirmative action programs, particularly in California and Texas.
“There’s a history of making [the] SAT optional, but it’s not been
done on a really large scale,” said Jay Rosner, executive director of
the Princeton Review Foundation. He has long been a critic of the
Bates College in Maine was one of the first colleges to make the SAT
optional for admission. That was thirteen years ago. The college has
been satisfied with the caliber of its students since.
“All the results we see are positive,” said Bill Hiss, vice
president of administrative services at Bates. “Those students were
right who said they’re better students than those tests suggest.”
Applications to Bates increased 65 percent after the college made
the SAT optional. Yet dropping the SAT requirement at Bates, a college
with fewer than 1,600 students, was likely easier than it would be for
the UC system, where more than 123,000 undergraduates attend its nine
“When we’re talking the scale of a UC, it’s like a mouse and an
elephant they’re simply different entities,” Rosner said. “Removing
[the SAT] in the context of UC admissions is an incredible challenge.”
Earlier this year, Texas passed a bill making the students in the
top ten percent of each high school automatically eligible for
university enrollment, in effect removing the SAT requirement for top
Some counselors attending the conference, while stopping short of
condemning the SAT requirement, suggested reducing the importance of
the test in admissions decisions.
“I think you have to have some measure whereby you can compare
people, but the emphasis shouldn’t be such that students with low
scores are automatically excluded if it’s shown in other ways that they
are quite capable of doing well,” said Tim’m West, coordinator of
College Summit, a Washington D.C. organization that assists
economically disadvantaged students to apply for college.
“I don’t think the SAT is a particularly good judge of the student’s ability,” West added.
That opinion is supported by research presented at the conference on
“stereotype threat,” a theory that negative stereotypes inhibit
students from performing well on standardized tests.
“It is simply the situation where you are doing something and
realize that a stereotype about a group to which you belong is
applicable,” explained Dr. Claude Steele, chair of the psychology
department at Stanford University. “The stress that causes, especially
if you care about doing well, can lower your performance on a
Steele said it is not necessary to believe in the stereotype, but
only to realize that the stereotype is applicable to oneself in order
to be affected by it. The person who cares most about doing well on a
test will be the most severely affected by stereotype threat, he said.
“If you’re not from a group that is stereotyped, a misstep doesn’t
have so much significance,” he added. “When you’re on thin ice [because
of the stereotype], any kind of misstep is consequential. The risk is
that you’re going to be seen in terms of this stereotype, you’re going
to confirm the stereotype.”
Steele found in his studies at Stanford that when given a section of
the GRE and told that the test was diagnostic, indicating their ability
level, Black students’ scores dropped dramatically. He found similar
results with women tested in math and among French students defined by
low socio-economic class. Steele concluded that when a test is not
diagnostic, the threat of the stereotype is removed, and students are
able to perform better.
“The reputation of the [SAT] test is intimidating and it’s getting
more and more intimidating because it’s becoming the center of the
public discourse around affirmative action,” Steele said.
The key to helping students achieve their potential, he said, is to
demand a high standard while assuring students they can achieve it.
Counselors seemed to take a practical message from the presentation.
“One of the things I got out of this session is that there are ways
that we can present these tests that may ease some of that pressure,”
West concluded. “If we don’t make these tests such a big thing, maybe
we’ll find that students do okay or they don’t feel as pressured by
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