Debating the Value of SAT Scores

By Catherine Groux
Posted September 18, 2012 03:00 PM

For years, professionals have debated the value of students' SAT scores.
For years, professionals have debated the value of students' SAT scores.
Every year, thousands of students take the SAT, an exam designed to determine their skills in the areas of critical reading, writing and mathematics. Colleges across the country then use these scores to see how well the students would fit in and how likely they are to thrive academically.

While most colleges still consider SAT scores a vital element in the admissions process, recent years have brought a steady debate over the value of SAT results.

A Barrier to College Admission for Low-Income and Minority Students

Historically, low-income and minority students tend to trail behind their peers when it comes to SAT scores. Some professionals claim this is simply because many of these students do not have access to the highest-quality schools and SAT prep services, but 2003 and 2010 Harvard Educational Review studies offered a different idea.

These independent studies examined the SAT for "differential item functioning," or DIF, Inside Higher Ed reports. On these types of questions, Caucasian and African American students will statistically provide different answers, even when their educational background and skills have been accounted for.

The two studies found no DIF problems on the mathematics portion of the test, but discovered various issues on the exam's verbal questions. On some of the easier questions, the DIF tended to favor Caucasian students, meaning they would be more likely to answer correctly. However, some of the more challenging questions favored African Americans. Overall, while there were advantages for both Caucasian and African American students, both teams of researchers felt Caucasian youths were at a significant advantage.

"The confirmation of unfair test results throws into question the validity of the test and, consequently, all decisions based on its results," read the 2010 study. "All admissions decisions based exclusively or predominantly on SAT performance - and therefore access to higher education institutions and subsequent job placement and professional success - appear to be biased against the African American minority group and could be exposed to legal challenge."

A Strong Predictor of College Success

Recently, Paul Sackett, a psychological scientist at the University of Minnesota, worked with his colleagues to determine whether the SATs really act as a barrier to college for low-income students, or if they can actually be an accurate gage of their future success.

After examining data from 143,606 students from 110 colleges, Sackett found SAT scores, as well as high school grades, could accurately predict an individual's academic performance in college. This relationship held true even when parents' education and family income was taken into account.

Other data has led to similar conclusions. In the 1990s, for example, several State University of New York campuses opted to require applicants to have higher SAT scores, while other campuses chose to keep their admissions requirements the same, The New York Times reports. The schools that decided to make these changes saw incoming students' SAT scores increase by 4.5 to 13.3%.

As students' SAT scores rose, these New York schools also witnessed increased academic success. In just a few years, the six-year graduation rate at Stony Brook rose by 5.4 percentage points, while Old Westbury saw an increase of 17.4 percentage points. At the campuses that did not bolster admissions standards, however, graduation rates declined.

"Demeaning the SAT has become fashionable at campuses across the country. But college administrators who really seek to understand the value of the test based on good empirical evidence would do well to learn from the varied experiences of New York’s state university campuses," Peter D. Salins, a professor of political science at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, wrote to the Times.

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