On May 27, Wake Forest University became the latest school to scrap the SAT Reasoning Test as a requirement for admission, making it optional for the 2009 freshman class.
Though it's hardly the first school to take the plunge, the private Winston-Salem, N.C., university's decision may be influential, given its prominence and its location in a region where fewer schools have chosen to de-emphasize the SAT. But that doesn't mean the pressure's off high school students aiming for college: Most four-year institutions "still rely on SATs for data that is critical," says Karen Newcomb.
Newcomb is the administrator of the Chesterfield County school system's new SAT Academy, which was formed to provide free and accessible services to students who want to better their scores on the test.
"I was really nervous when I took my SAT, because I felt that if I didn't do well, my life would change," says Anthony Davis Jr., a rising senior at Clover Hill High who's taking advantage of the new program. "If I do well at the Academy, I'll have better chances of getting accepted into college."
The SAT has been making high-school seniors sweat since 1926; it assesses critical thinking and problem solving in three areas: reading, mathematics and writing. Although its value has been greatly debated, the test is the standard by which college readiness is measured.
According to an open letter to alumni, Wake Forest became convinced that "the SAT is a weak measure of academic ability" that could "undercut [the school's] diversity and talent pools." The letter goes on to say that many students with excellent credentials "may not be strong standardized test takers." Those students might not apply to the school "because they feel their SAT score will automatically rule them out."
Nevin Horner, a Cosby High School student, and Paige Smith, who attends L.C. Bird, definitely feel their scores were adversely affected by the stress of taking the test. They are certainly not alone. "Some students test well, and some don't," observes Anthony Ambrogi, director of admissions for Randolph-Macon College.
Ambrogi believes Wake Forest's decision will cause other colleges and universities to reexamine the emphasis placed on the test. "They are looking at both the positives and the negatives to them," he says. "SATs are the only piece consistent among all applicants. It's the same test nationwide."
In Virginia, according to William C. Bosher Jr., executive director of Virginia Commonwealth University's Commonwealth Educational Policy Institute, about 70 percent of students take the test. But Bosher, former state superintendent of schools, says that SATs are not the best predictor of success in college. "Most of the presidents of four-year institutions will tell you that the best predictor is your grade-point average."
Valerie Keating, director of school counseling at J.R. Tucker High in Henrico, agrees. "The first criteria colleges look at is the rigor of the student's coursework. They want to see if the students are challenging themselves with AP classes ... The next thing they look at is how well students performed in those classes."
The SAT, on the other hand, is simply a snapshot of a student's abilities. "It doesn't show consistent work over the years," Ambrogi says. "We look at the scores, but we are more concerned about the high-school transcript."
In 2005, College Board, the organization that administers the test, revised it to include an essay. Students can now score up to 800 on each section, with a total perfect score of 2,400.
This June, the College Board released information on its 2008 SAT Validity Studies, a report on students who have taken the exam since 2005. The studies, which evaluated data from about 150,000 students attending 110 four-year colleges and universities across the country, showed that the SAT is still a good predictor of a student's success in the first year of college and that the new writing section is the single most predictive section of the test for all students.
But University of Richmond admissions dean Pam Spence looks at those findings with a cautious eye. "Admission at Richmond is a holistic process," she says. "We are looking at the total person. A number of factors have to come together to generate a positive admission decision."
The University of Virginia and Virginia Tech also require SATs. "What we are trying to do is get as much information about the potential for a student to succeed in college as we can," explains Mark Owczarski, a university spokesperson for Tech. "The SAT is not the end-all, be-all, but it is a piece of the puzzle."
The SATs are a helpful tool when schools are looking at a large number of students, according to Sybil Halloran, VCU's director of undergraduate admissions. "But it's not something that you want to use on its own," she says, noting that VCU has no immediate plans to do away with SATs. "We're always reviewing how we do things."
Bosher sees the test as a disqualifier rather than a qualifier. "It's not used as a tool to reflect how well a student is doing," he says. "It's a tool to weed students out." For example, if there are two students with a 3.8 GPA, the one with an 1,800 score would be offered admission over a student with a 1,500.
Although he doesn't believe other four-year institutions will jump to eliminate the SAT, Bosher does think that some will follow Wake Forest's lead. "Most institutions that draw a broader range of students will continue to look for indicators to identify their pool," he says. "Institutions with a different mission may look at the strength of the GPA versus the weakness of the SAT. Either way, it will be a slow movement."