Can you steer clear of the SAT? Some students work around a test many deplore

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
October 25, 2001

Here’s how Katharine Callard outsmarted the SATs:  She chose a college that didn’t require them. That’s right: She didn’t sweat those SAT prep classes, and she got into Hampshire College anyway.

Of course, as a straight-A student at the top-notch Latin School of Chicago, Callard had a pretty good idea of her ability to do well in college. But for rank-and-file students, standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT are a barometer of how much students have learned and how well they’ll do at the university level.

“I was never a big fan of standardized testing, and I didn’t do particularly well on my SATs,” says Callard, 20, a sophomore. “A lot of the kids in my school took SAT prep classes like Kaplan to score better because scoring high was important to them. I always did well in school and thought that should be more important in judging how smart I was.”

According to FairTest, a group urging less use of standardized tests, fewer than 70 four-year schools require no standardized test scores; 383 colleges and universities do not strictly require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores for admittance.

“Standardized testing was implemented when a lot more people wanted to go to highly selective schools,” says David Murray, director of Statistical Assessment Service. “It was introduced as an instrument of fairness so a working class kid would get a chance to go to Princeton or Harvard.”

Murray says a low score on the SAT doesn’t necessarily mean a student is stupid. But a high score, such as 1,460 out of a maximum 1,600, tells a college recruiter a great deal about his or her potential: “A high SAT score is roughly calibrateable to a high IQ,” Murray says. “And students with high IQs tend to do well in school.”

The vast majority of universities and colleges still demand either the SAT I reasoning test, or the ACT achievement test, according to to the nonprofit College Board, which owns the SAT. Some schools also may require the less-requested SAT II subject test. And each year, students comply. More than two million high school students take the SAT I exam, while 1.8 million take the ACT. Some take both.         Critics have attacked the tests as unfair ways to gauge students’ abilities. They say whites, who have high family incomes and better education, do better on the tests than minorities.

“The only thing the SAT predicts is that you have the ability to memorize vocabulary and know basic math,” says Bridget Terry Long, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “If you score better on a test, it probably signifies you have some intelligence of ability. But schools that go just by test scores exclude some people who might have a high level of intelligence but don’t perform well on tests.

“There’s no question there should be other forms of criteria for admitting students. One of the great advantages of Harvard is we have the money to invest in admission counselors who can look beyond SATs. There are fabulous schools like the the University of Michigan and the University of California at Berkeley that don’t have the resources to do what we do and have to go strictly by the numbers.”

The problem with the standardized testing, according to Statistical Assessment Service’s Murray, isn’t with the testing but in what they disclose. They may reveal things that coincide with racial, ethnic and gender differences.

“Critics say the tests are culturally and gender biased. Maybe females may not have the same expectations to do well in math and science and don’t receive the same encouragement as the males do at home. That may be true, but don’t blame the test for revealing that.”         Murray also doesn’t buy the theory that poor kids from uneducated families fare worse than their white counterparts.

“Recent immigrants from Vietnam with household incomes of less than $20,000 score higher than African American students whose parents are professionals earning more than $70,000 a year,” Murray says.

“A white kid going to Berkeley will score pretty evenly with scores of 650 verbal and 650 math. An Asian kid will score higher on math, but not so well on verbal. Socioeconomic status is one reason, but it’s not the answer.”

Unless more universities change their enrollment requirements, high school students will still need to take the SAT or ACT to get into the school of their choice. But students who don’t buy into that theory are making their own way by actively selecting schools that don’t require an entrance exam.

“Standardized testing is a brain contest, and I didn’t want any part of that,” says Dave Lee, 25, a recent graduate of Chicago’s Columbia College who attends graduate school at Cal State Fullerton. “I’ve met people who tested high on their SATs and they were idiots. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a random number.”

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