Stop blaming the SAT

Stop blaming the SAT
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Now that one college acceptance season has just ended and another is revving up, Michael Arlen Davis’s new documentary about the SAT exam is perfectly timed to capitalize on the pressure of the test, the anxiety of admissions process, and the overwhelming misperceptions about what can be done about them. “The Test and the Art of Thinking” argues that SATs are the root of much of the evil in the college admissions world.

Mr. Davis is a businessman-turned-filmmaker who financed and directed the project after he saw first-hand how a less-than-stellar score could close off many college options for a bright, talented student. And although the film is a thoughtful indictment of this infamous rite-of-passage, Mr. Davis misses an essential reality: despite the test’s faults, colleges rely on it because it works.

Colleges use the SAT (and its competitor, the ACT) because it is a pretty reasonable benchmark by which to compare kids. College websites and recruiting brochures may proclaim that a student’s high school course selection and grades are the most important factors in admissions decisions, but insiders know that such proclamations are offered with a wink. Given the realities of rampant grade inflation and vast disparities in academic rigor at the high school level, colleges need some common denominator, however imperfect, for assessing applicants. Standardized tests offer such a benchmark.  


Whether or not the SAT is a good predictor of a student’s likely first-year university performance — as the test’s creator, the College Board, professes and its critics contest — it does measure one thing. And that is, the student’s willingness to prepare for the test itself.

Davis’s film does a capable job arguing that the SAT is not really an intelligence test, not quite an aptitude test, and, contrary to the College Board’s protestations, can be studied for and even “gamed.” Indeed, some of the most entertaining parts of the film are segments in which tutors reveal“tricks” a student can use to eliminate wrong answers and make better guesses.

Sadly, it is also a one-sided documentary.

There are, of course, a fair number of very good colleges that have become “test-optional.” Students can submit their SAT scores if they think it will help improve their chances of admission, but standardized test results are not required. What few students realize is that making the SAT optional actually is a smart marketing strategy by college admissions departments. Colleges that employ a test-optional admissions policy often see the number of applications soar. Yet by keeping the number of freshman slots steady, these colleges accept a smaller percentage of applicants. That makes them appear to be more selective, boosting their standing in those ranking surveys that are themselves questionable and misleading.

Well-meaning folks on both sides of the political aisle can argue about the fairness of a test that can be “gamed” — with the right tutoring. It is no secret that middle- and upper-middle-class families invest heavily in tutors. And many lower-income Asian-American families do so as well, according to a recent study by Noodle Education, not yet published. (Full disclosure: Noodle CEO John Katzman is a friend and frequent collaborator.)

Moreover, an increasing number of lower-income school districts are devoting financial resources and classroom time to preparing kids for these high-stakes tests. As Katzman thoughtfully articulates in Davis’s film, this focus on test-prep skews what schools teach. Would students be better off — and better prepared — by focusing on subject matter content and critical-thinking skills, rather than on how to beat the tests?

Recently, I was reminded of Davis’s film when counseling a friend’s high school sophomore daughter about colleges and the admissions process. Both mother and daughter were shocked by three statistics: first, that fully 60 percent of students who start at a college don’t graduate from that college. Second, that 70 percent of kids who think they know what they want to major in change their minds once they get to college. And third, that 50 percent change their minds twice.

To make college decisions, probably half of all college-bound families rely on dubious assumptions and priorities that are sure to change. Once they set aside some common misperceptions — that colleges are impressed by big-name recommendations, lots of extracurricular activities, and summers spent addressing the world’s problems — this mother and daughter seemed as relieved as they were surprised.

Mr. Davis’s film also provided them with a bit of hope. The SAT gives some students a second chance at getting into a good college. There are lots of bright kids who simply haven’t gotten great grades in high school — sometimes because of family problems, occasionally because undiagnosed learning disabilities, and often because some students just take longer to mature and buckle down. A good SAT score says to admissions people: this student can handle college-level work.

My advice: Hire a good SAT tutor. Raising a test score by 100 points will open far more admissions doors, Michael Arlen Davis’ arguments notwithstanding.

Steve Cohen is an attorney at Pollock Cohen LLP in New York and a former member of the board of directors of the United States Naval Institute. He is the co-author of “Getting In: College Admissions in the Digital Age.”