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DanvilleSanRamon.com

Living - January 11, 2008

The 411: Dangers of the SAT

by Katharine O'Hara

The SAT - taken 1,465,744 times in 2006 alone - has no doubt become a household name, and lies at the root of stress and hysteria for most teens (and their parents) on the college bound track. Colleges and universities have used the test as an admissions tool since 1926, as it is a more accurate predictor of collegiate academic success than are simply grades. According to the College Board, the SAT - now an empty acronym - aims to test the critical thinking skills necessary for students to be academically successful in college.

In choosing which standardized test to take, students basically have two options: to take the SAT, which is most commonly chosen on the coasts, or its close competitor, the ACT, which is the more popular choice in the Midwest and South. Many students find that if they don't perform well on one test, they usually do better on the other.

The test was first developed in 1901 by Carl Brigham as a way to supposedly get rid of test bias between people of differing socio-economic backgrounds. However, since the 1970s the SAT has received large criticism for various reasons, primarily for creating race-based and socio-economic bias. African Americans and Latinos both score consistently lower on the SAT than do Caucasians. Additionally, in a Washington Post article released early last year, the president of Sarah Lawrence College, Dr. Michele Tolela Myers, in defense of the school's SAT-optional policy, claimed that the SAT "did much to bias admission in favor of those who could afford expensive coaching sessions."

Sarah Lawrence College, along with 280 of the 2,083 four-year colleges in the United States, and 24 of the top 100 U.S. liberal arts schools (as ranked by U.S. News and World Report), has joined the SAT Optional Movement, eliminating SAT scores as a requirement for admission. Bates College, one of the first schools to jump on board, has published a series of studies regarding the outcome of implementing the policy for more than two decades. The studies revealed a mere 0.1 percent difference in graduation rates between those who submitted SAT scores and those who did not, and non-submitting students averaged only .05 points lower on their collegiate GPA than did submitting students. The study, which proved SAT scores obviously predict less than previously supposed, prompted a movement of other liberal arts schools to follow suit in the early 2000s.

The test could very well be an irrelevant measure of future academic success. After all, the SAT does not reveal anything about a person, their ability to work hard, or their other gifts or talents; it merely evaluates a student's ability to take the SAT - a skill one can hone should they have the financial resources to afford a preparation class or personal tutor.

Extensive preparation for the test has become the norm, especially in affluent suburban communities like Danville and Alamo where most students can afford these options. Students feel inclined to take the SAT at least two or three times, and some spend months prepping. When SAT results come out, scores dictate the topic of conversation for several days - kids are distraught or excited about their scores, and everyone wants to know the score of the person next to him. Then, the mania dies down until the next month's scores are revealed, and the cycle repeats.

It seems SAT hype starts as early as middle school today. However, the hysteria surrounding the test only serves to distract kids from focusing on more fruitful endeavors like their passions, hobbies, and even school studies - efforts that will be regarded (perhaps even more heavily than the SAT) in the college admissions decision.

As former University of California president Richard Atkinson said in his 2001 speech to the American Council on Education, "overemphasis on the SAT is distorting educational priorities and practices ... and can have a devastating impact on the self-esteem and aspirations of young students." Atkinson's remarks were made in hopes of pushing an SAT-optional policy on the UC system, which in its entirety receives over 90,000 applications yearly.

Despite the movement to phase out the SAT, many feel that the test is a necessary, consistent and nationally recognized way to maintain high standards in the country's institutions of higher education, and most universities have no plans to eliminate the SAT requirement. Still, schools are gradually deemphasizing the importance of SAT scores, weighing other factors like GPA, essays and extracurricular activities more heavily in the admission decision.

It is important to recognize that in overemphasizing the importance of SAT scores, we are on the way to creating a dangerous society: one that places more value on supposed genetic intelligence than on personality, achievements, talents, creative endeavors, and personal success and happiness. As Florida State University admissions chief John Barnhill said, and what we all must remember: "The SAT doesn't measure heart."

The 411 offers information and insight on the teen scene by Katharine O'Hara, a senior at San Ramon Valley High School who spends her free time going to concerts, enjoying her friends, and playing the piano. E-mail her at ohara5@comcast.net.

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