Wake Forest University

The SAT Question: No — Subjectivity eclipses objectivity

Rethinking Admissions

Continuing the Conversation

The SAT Question: No — Subjectivity eclipses objectivity

This opinion piece by Jill Tiefenthaler, Wake Forest’s provost and professor of economics, first appeared in the Greensboro News & Record.

By JILL TIEFENTHALER


There are no objective inputs to the college admissions process. We crave clear tests that offer a fair chance to prove merit. The SAT was conceived for this purpose, but that objectivity has eroded.

We want to believe that, irrespective of our different backgrounds or experiences in life, we are judged based on our work ethic and achievements. At Wake Forest University, this premise has been woven into the fabric of our institution since its founding. We have always sought to provide opportunities to those willing to earn them, without regard to advantages in life or the lack thereof. In order to preserve this important heritage, we have taken a bold stand to acknowledge the absence of objectivity in college admissions and redirect emphasis to the subjective measures that work.

The race for spots at the most competitive national colleges and universities has reached a fever pitch, and families have responded by trying to maximize every input. Standardized test scores provide a great example. These scores generally improve with guidance and repetition, and so the tests have encouraged an industry of test training that takes advantage of the ambitions of students and their families. Test preparation courses have become commonplace, and students take tests over and over to improve their scores. At the extreme, consultants whose fees reach tens of thousands of dollars contribute to an escalating craze.

The goal of evaluating standardized test scores and measures like GPA is to find the applicants with the brightest minds who are motivated to excel and offer meaningful contributions to the learning of their peers. Admissions professionals try to determine which students will be academically successful and make important contributions to the learning community. There is some correlation between standardized test scores and first-year college grades, but high school grades — even with the differences in curriculum across schools — are by far the best predictors of college success. When a predictive model accounts for high school grades, adding in standardized test scores does not significantly improve the accuracy of the model. In fact, the SAT is correlated more closely with socioeconomic background than with college success. More

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