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May 3, 2010

If the SAT is as bad as people say, why do colleges still use it?

You’re right, criticisms of the SAT could fill a book. Reflecting widespread reservations about the test, some colleges no longer require their applicants to submit SAT scores, others have made submission optional.

But the great majority of colleges still want to see SAT (or ACT) scores. Why? Because no one has come up with a good alternative.

Test scores versus GPAs  Most colleges today base admissions decisions on a variety of factors. But numbers are concrete and easy to compare, and the two numbers admissions personnel love are test scores and grade-point averages. Of those measures, most colleges find that GPAs—particularly for grades earned in college-prep courses—are the better predictor of how well students will do in their first year of college. (The College Board concedes that point but maintains that the combination of GPA and SAT score makes a better predictor still.)

Why don’t colleges just use GPAs to guide admissions decisions?  Because there are also significant weaknesses inherent in grade-point averages:

  • High schools around the country vary widely in course content, teacher quality, grading standards, and so on. Work that earns an A grade in one school, for example, may only fetch a B or C in another. Should a student who goes to a tough high school be downgraded because of lower grades?
  • Grade inflation is out of control. High school teachers—pressured by students, parents and even school administrators—are handing out A grades with abandon. According to a study by the American Council on Education, 43 percent of students graduate from high school with an A average. And while grades have risen and continue to go up, SAT scores have stayed about the same or gradually gone down. How is a college, faced with the need to narrow down a long list of applicants, supposed to figure out which are the most promising students if so many have superior grades?

The usefulness of test scores  The SAT score (or ACT score) has a major advantage over high school GPA: All students are measured against the same yardstick. That’s significant. And that’s why most colleges are still requiring test scores. In fact, a nationwide survey shows that college admissions offices are relying more on test scores today than they did a decade ago.

A final word  We’ll be the first to acknowledge that the SAT has shortcomings (some of which are inherent in all standardized tests). But we believe the makers of the SAT try hard to produce an instrument that’s meaningful and fair, and even with all the hurdles, more often than not they succeed.