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Education Reporter

Colleges, Princeton Review Criticize the SAT
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Smith College and Wake Forest University just made the SAT and ACT optional for admissions. Other prestigious colleges that don't require standardized tests include Bowdoin, George Mason, Middlebury, and Mount Holyoke. Wake Forest admissions director Martha Allman said that the school hopes to increase socioeconomic and racial diversity by making testing less important for admissions. (CNN, 5-30-08)

The Princeton Review, the nation's second-largest test-preparation company, surprised many when it sent out a press release applauding Wake Forest's decision. "The Princeton Review has long been a critic of the SAT as a test that is economically, racially and gender biased," said Robert Franek, company vice president.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Franek supported this assertion only by pointing out that white students score higher on the SAT than minority students. (Wall Street Journal, 6-13-08)

The Journal's Naomi Schaeffer Riley challenged Franek's logic. "All you have to know about racial bias and the SATs is this: the scores of black students overpredict their performance in college. . . . Black students at elite schools typically perform in college at the level of white students with SAT scores 300 points lower." The College Board, which owns the SAT, says that minority students' somewhat lower performance on the test is an educational problem, rather than a problem with the test.

While only a handful of elite schools have decided to ignore the SAT completely, many more colleges disregard or deemphasize the writing section. 50% of all four-year colleges, including some top schools such as MIT and Georgetown, don't even consider the writing score. Harvard, Wellesley, Tufts, and many others look at the score but pay it little heed compared to other aspects of the application.

The writing section has only appeared on the regular SAT since 2005. Before that, a separate SAT II Subject Test evaluated writing skills. Critics of the section say that high-scoring students have merely memorized a formulaic, five-paragraph approach to writing essays that test scorers like.

Les Perelman, director of MIT's writing program, is one such critic. "They've learned to write paragraph essays where they don't care whether the facts are correct. We have to spend a year in freshman composition deprogramming them," he complains. To prove his point, Perelman trained three high school students to write SAT essays that followed the formula and used big words, but were full of glaring inaccuracies and illogical assertions. All three received nearly perfect scores.

Despite these weaknesses, many admissions directors cling to the writing section as their only opportunity to see an unedited writing sample from prospective students. "With the SAT essay, they may be prompted, but at least you know it's a proctored environment and it's not an edited piece of writing," said Kelly Walter of Boston University. (Boston Globe, 9-20-07)

Like the SAT writing section, standardized tests in general provide schools with something they can't get any other way — a glimpse, however imperfect, of what each student actually knows. Grade inflation makes even a 4.0 GPA a questionable indicator at many high schools; and fewer high schools than ever are tracking and reporting class rank.

Cheating, too, is an issue in admissions. Dozens of online companies offer to write students' admissions essays for them — as well as their written coursework — sometimes for hefty sums. Cheating is difficult to quantify, but high school and college teachers alike say that students now cheat more than ever before. Duke University's Center for Academic Integrity surveyed 24,000 high school students over six years and found that 64% admitted cheating on a test at least once.

The occasional highly publicized cheating scandal sometimes brings fellow students forward to denounce widespread cheating. In upscale Severna Park, Maryland, for example, three students were caught cheating on the Advanced Placement American history exam last year. The students took a copy of the test to the bathroom and looked up answers in a test preparation booklet.

The girls who cheated were not disciplined, even though the school had all 45 students retake the AP exam. "Anyone who doesn't think there's a culture of cheating here is either oblivious or blind," Severna Park High School student Peter Thompson told the Baltimore Sun (5-22-07). "Ranks and GPAs here are meaningless." If Peter is right, then the SAT will continue to play a practical and crucial role in college admissions at most schools.

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