Widgets Magazine


I am more than a number: The case against SAT scores in college admissions

Over two million students take the SAT test every year, making it the most widely-used college admissions test in the country. One of the most the most pressure-packed tests a young adult can take, the SAT brings back memories of stress and anxiety for many students. The American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America survey reported 31 percent of teens feeling overwhelmed and another 30 percent feeling sad or depressed as a result of stress, pointing to school and school-related activities as a key cause. With stress levels rivaling those of adults, students could really benefit from eliminating some stress-inducers from their daily lives. Considering the SAT is a proven to be reflection of socioeconomic status (SES) and a poor indicator of success in college, it is time that the test gets removed from the college admissions process once and for all.

The belief that the standardized test is the “great leveler” that sets all students on an equal playing field for evaluation is a huge misconception. It has been empirically proven year after year that performance on SAT and ACT tests is positively correlated to a student’s SES by College Board data and National Center for Fair and Open Testing research. Thus, those who are already advantaged in education are given another leg up in college admissions.

The reasons for the correlation are not difficult to uncover. Money buys expensive SAT practice test books, test prep classes, private college counselors, etc. While there are a myriad of factors that create SES-related inequality in education, the SAT test in particular is a measure of whether a student can afford to “learn the tricks” of the tests. Even signing up for the test costs about $50. While students can receive aid from the government, the fee waivers only cover two tests, while others who can afford it can and do take the test three or more times. The College Board claims that its new 2016 format for the test will be “less coachable.” However, now the essay prompt will be published beforehand, enabling students with writing tutors to craft an entire, edited response before they even step into the testing center. Regardless of changes in the focus of the test and content, test prep agencies will adapt their products to teach to the new test and offer the same preparation advantages as before.

Regardless of the “coachability” of the test, stereotype threat disadvantages minorities at the start. Identifying as black, female or any other identity associated with negative stereotypes in education before taking a test causes test takers’ inhibiting doubts to increase. The very tangible process of bubbling in a disadvantaging identity at the beginning of a test like the SAT causes test takers to perform worse than when they do not self-identify. Again, the privileged in society are further advantaged on the SAT.

GPA is a much better “standard” indicator for a student’s success in the context of their school and the academic opportunities offered there. Standardized tests do not take into account that a student may be intelligent in other academic areas not covered on the test, while a transcript will reflect these academic strengths. Even though GPA is not a standard measure across schools, admissions officers can understand how to value a GPA from a certain school because they have access to annual school reports about class size, GPA distribution, courses offered, etc. A recent study published on the National Association for College Admission Counseling website confirms GPA as a viable indicator of success, finding no difference between graduation rates of students who did and did not submit SAT scores at SAT-optional colleges. Rather, students with low testing scores and higher GPAs fared better than students with higher scores and weaker GPAs.

Admissions officers can also look to teacher recommendations and personal essays to get a sense of students’ personalities, challenges they may have overcome, and their thought processes. Extracurricular activities further showcase a student’s intangible qualities, such as leadership, innovation, a desire to change the world — the same qualities outlined in the Stanford acceptance letter as primary reasons for admittance to the University. A lack of standardized testing scores would therefore not leave officers with insufficient information about the candidate; over 100 schools have been operating admissions successfully on an SAT-optional basis already.

Stanford sees applicant pools of 40,000 or more. More than 5.07 percent of applicants have SAT scores in the 2,200-2,400 range, so the 2,000 or so who make the final cut must have done something exceptional other than receiving a perfect SAT score to make themselves stand out. Stanford has the opportunity to be the first elite institution to formally eliminate the SAT from its admissions considerations and inspire others leaders in higher education to follow. Without SAT scores, higher education could return its focus on identifying true, deep and brilliant thinkers and developing them to their fullest potential instead of rewarding the most “excellent sheep.”

Contact Kelsey Page at kpage2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Kelsey Page

Kelsey Page is an opinions fellow for The Stanford Daily. She is a freshman enjoying her time being undecided, but she is considering something in the social sciences, MS&E, or both. She will likely be found Irish dancing, reading the newspaper over a cup of coffee, or watching Friends reruns. Contact her at kpage2 'at' stanford.edu.
  • Anonymous

    “Stanford has the opportunity to be the first elite institution to formally eliminate the SAT from its admissions considerations” LOL, never gonna happen

  • Mike

    Regarding stereotype threat: “Regardless of the “coachability” of the test, stereotype threat disadvantages minorities at the start. Identifying as black, female or any other identity associated with negative stereotypes in education before taking a test causes test takers’ inhibiting doubts to increase.”

    The clear solution here is to remove the race self-identification question on the test. Then you wouldn’t have stereotype threat!

  • Alex

    “GPA is a much better “standard” indicator for a student’s success in the context of their school and the academic opportunities offered there.”

    This doesn’t make sense at all. The SAT allows you to compare applicants across different schools, while GPA only allows you to compare students within schools. Trying to compare GPA’s across schools is impossible because schools have vastly different student intelligence levels and grading standards.

    While evaluating extracurricular activities is very important, I would caution against valuing them more heavily in lieu of an academic quantifier like the SAT. Wealthier students have more time and resources for these activities, so relying on them more could further exacerbate opportunity inequality.

  • In fact, 850 accredited, bachelor-degree granting institutions now will
    review all or many applicants without regard to ACT/SAT scores
    (http://fairtest.org/university/optional). More than 100 additional schools have dropped
    admissions testing requirements in the past decade boosting the
    number of test-optional colleges and universities ranked in the top
    tiers of their respective categories to 165+.

  • Mary

    I agree. I think the SAT is a much more valid source of assessment than GPA since you can compare students across the nation. If anything, I’d say eliminate GPA because it’s so dependent on the school the person attends. For instance, a student in a rigorous school may have a 3.5 while a student in a less academic school may have over a 4.0. So it’s not really valid in assessing the student overall compared to other applicants.

    I do, however, think extracurriculars are important. They show your passions and separate, distinguish you from other students.

  • Aaron

    What’s important to remember is how the Admissions committee looks at each application. Every Admissions Counselor at Stanford – and every other peer institution – describes their evaluation as “holistic”, taking into account each and every part of the application as a whole. While this does give room to the idea that SAT and ACT scores play an unproportional role in admissions, it doesn’t mean it’s irrefutable.

    As for the scale of GPA: along with every transcript, there is a “school report” that gives context to the grades. This document includes information like available academic rigor, level of competition, and grading practices. This alone makes the GPA a scaled, appropriate indicator of performance. An applicant’s GPA reflects performance across their entire four years of high school.

    In response to socioeconomic differences, this is “solved” by the holistic review process. In reality, it is not a perfect system, and they know that. By giving themselves the liberty to evaluate on a holistic level, it gives them the best opportunity to accept the lucky 2,000.

  • Taylor

    “GPA is a much better “standard” indicator for a student’s success in the
    context of their school and the academic opportunities offered there.”

    “Even though GPA is not a standard measure across schools, admissions
    officers can understand how to value a GPA from a certain school because
    they have access to annual school reports about class size, GPA
    distribution, courses offered, etc.”
    By definition, the SAT is a STANDARDIZED test – emphasis on STANDARDIZED. How can you even objectively compare students within the SAME SCHOOL, much less different schools via GPA?

    Let’s examine some potential issues for comparing WITHIN THE SAME SCHOOL:
    1) Even within the same school – people take classes of varying difficulty (AP, Honors, etc.). How are you going to compare this? Is an B in AP English “equal” to an A in regular English? Comparisons like this are so subjective….
    2) Even within the same class level – there may be different teachers. How can you say an A in AP English from Mr. White = A in AP English from Mr. Smith? What if one teacher is much harder? Again, you must make a subjective decision…
    3) Let’s say student A and B take the exact same classes with the exact same teachers except that:
    Student A takes AP Bio in 10th grade, AP Chem in 11th grade
    Student B takes AP Chem in 10th grade, AP Bio in 10th grade

    We all know that these classes may change (sometimes drastically) from year to year with regard to grading scheme, assignments, etc. So can you really compare GPAs here?

    Now if you want to compare GPAs from different HSs, you run into issues regarding SCHOOL RIGOR.

    You can’t possibly deny that there is a wide variation in rigor among HSs across the country. How can you compare GPAs from a top public HS vs. a struggling public HS? You say you can look at annual school reports for info about courses offered, GPA distribution etc. However, that doesn’t help at all. If your school is filled with geniuses, it will be harder to get a top GPA. And isn’t comparing school reports inherently SUBJECTIVE? Let’s say you have an average student from the best school in the country vs. top student at an average school. How are you going to determine who is more qualified?

    All in all, the things you are advocating for are much more subjective than a standardized measure. Is the SAT perfect? No. But it’s a whole lot better than any other academic measure used today.

    With the SAT, I can compare the academic ability of any student in a statistically meaningful way. Sure, the SAT might not measure all types of intelligence but it does a decent job measuring the components that we can all agree are important for college preparedness (i.e., general reading ability, basic math skills, basic writing/grammar skills).

    And you need to wake up to the reality that in life, many things are just about a number. In an ideal world, all GPAs would be weighted in a such a way that they could be compared. After all, GPA represents a larger body of work. But at the end of the day, you need to prove your competency through a standardized means. Are you advocating that law schools or medical schools get rid of LSAT/MCAT? Are you advocating that we just get rid of board exams for doctors?

    Even beyond academia, smart people recognize that standardized means of measuring competence are extremely valuable. Top companies like McKinsey or Goldman Sachs often ask applicants for their SAT. Why? Because they know that college GPAs are not the best means of comparing applicants.

    As for your argument that wealth “buys” high scores – can’t you make the same argument that wealth “buys” higher GPAs? I’m not denying that having access to prep classes (from being wealthy) will help your score and thus give you the appearance of having higher abilities. I don’t mind admissions officers giving a “boost” to disadvantaged students’ academic abilities but first we need to actually have a meaningful way to compare academic abilities.

    “”Stanford has the opportunity to be the first elite institution to
    formally eliminate the SAT from its admissions considerations””
    No elite school will ever get rid of a standardized measure to compare students. The day an elite school does, it will be seriously jeopardizing its “elite” status. It’s hard enough to compare student academic ability with the SAT + GPA + letter of recs + other information. Getting rid of the BEST measure to compare academic ability is almost equivalent to randomly drawing students from a hat. The student quality at such a school would decline. Employers would recognize the poorer student quality and the school would begin a gradual descent in prestige.

    In my opinion, even as it stands today, I feel like many schools are placing too MUCH emphasis on GPA. Let’s look at medical schools where about half the weight of one’s overall academic competency is placed on GPA. Are you really going to tell me that someone with a Math major with 3.5 GPA (that’s above B+ average) is really less qualified than a 3.8 Psych major at a top 500 university? Sure you can make some type of subjective argument about this but where is the cutoff point? The easiest way is to just compare the two students’ on a close-to-level playing field (i.e., MCAT).

    What about a 3.5 MIT math major vs. 3.6 MIT English major? What about 3.5 MIT math major vs. 3.5 Stanford math major? What about 3.4 Stanford CS major who did the hardest concentration within CS vs a 3.45 Stanford CS major who did the easiest concentration within CS? There are infinite situations that all require subjective (and somewhat arbitrary) judgement calls.

  • Taylor


    Let’s be real. The reason lots of schools are going test optional is that they want to attract more applicants. Elite schools don’t have that issue.

    You can bet that no elite school will ever eliminate a standardized measure from admissions considerations.

  • Andy

    I’ve seen the school report for my high school; it is extremely vague and unhelpful in distinguishing top students. They do this on purpose so that mediocre students from the school don’t look bad.

  • Anonymous

    Many falsehoods repeated here as gospel.

    Steven Pinker of Harvard argues that Harvard should ONLY use standardized testing for admissions.


    Some interesting points he makes:

    1) Regarding the SAT being a useless high-stakes test: “Camilla Benbow and David Lubinski have tracked a large sample of precocious teenagers identified solely by high performance on the SAT, and found that when they grew up, they not only excelled in academia, technology, medicine, and business, but won outsize recognition for their novels, plays, poems, paintings, sculptures, and productions in dance, music, and theater.”

    2) Regarding the claim that SAT “just measures parental income”: “Paul Sackett and his collaborators have shown that SAT scores predict future university grades, holding all else constant, whereas parental SES (socio-economic status) does not. Matt McGue has shown, moreover, that adolescents’ test scores track the SES only of their biological parents, not (for adopted kids) of their adoptive parents, suggesting that the tracking reflects shared genes, not economic privilege.”

  • John

    “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

    -John Roberts

  • cardcounter

    Two of the links in this article do not address the correlation of scores and graduation rates. The one link that does only refers to a third party study. If you look at that study it is biased in it’s approach and uses questionable data. One quote from the study, “But none of these institutions have test scores for 100% of their students, and some have reasonably low percentages.”

    Common sense tells me there is a correlation between SAT/ACT scores and a student’s readiness to start college. High school GPA is not a good indicator of a student’s readiness for college because of the extreme variation in the rigor of classes from high school to high school. I know some high school’s where students getting A’s and B’s are functionally illiterate. I know some high schools where most of the student body are brilliant and will succeed in whatever they do.

  • Emma

    You bring up some interesting points, but they’re quite hypocritical considering your background.

    Also, realistically, a school like Stanford can’t simply go test optional since looking at an SAT/ACT score is a very fast indicator of a student. Looking only at GPAs and evaluating these based on school reports alone would take forever. Admissions officers do not have forever; they don’t even have 15 minutes to read your application once, twice if you’re a legacy. There are legs up across the board in college admissions, from, yes, good test scores, to athletics to legacy to class status. Removing test scores from the equation wouldn’t vastly affect the committee’s decisions, but it would likely save applicants some anxiety.

  • Tommy

    alternatively, put the race self-identification questions at the end of the test, instead of the start.

  • Prg234

    Correlation does not imply causation. You try to explain the correlation between ses and sat scores in a very interesting and biased manner. Could it be that higher ses also correlates highly with general measures of intelligence, and that it is the sats strong correlation with a general intelligence factor that is at work, as opposed to test prep and tutoring? Most extremely bright individuals do quite well on the sat without prepping regardless of ses.

  • Anon1

    I agree.

    I know it’s not politically correct but in GENERAL, there is a positive correlation between SES and innate intelligence (however you want to define it). It’s not necessarily causation though.

    Yes, many people are disadvantaged by their low SES status but it shouldn’t really be surprising that people who are innately smarter have an easier time getting higher paying jobs (I know networking, luck, and other factors matter but this is in GENERAL).

    And yes, a significant part of intelligence is determined genetically (again, not PC but let’s just be real here – how can people acknowledge that athletic ability has a significant genetic basis but intelligence does not? If you two people with IQs of 180 had children, it’s pretty likely the child will have an IQ that is above the average of 100). So when smarter people have children, those children will tend to be innately smarter (and thus, do better on the SAT – even if they don’t use prep courses).

  • Stanstud

    Yeah I don’t see Stanford becoming test optional since test scores are an easy, fast way to see to some degree what the student is like. Someone who gets a 1300/2400 on the sat is most likely not going to get into Stanford and therefore makes it easy for admissions to move them rather quickly to the “no” group.

  • everyman

    Everything can be coached. And a GPA does not necessarily identify “true
    deep thinkers.” For one, I know plenty of students who are autobots and
    focus all of their time and effort on their GPAs. This does not make
    them thinkers. In fact, it makes them super boring.

    As far as
    Stanford choosing students who do something exceptional, rather than
    students who perform well on standardized tests…the underprivileged
    students you speak of may find it difficult to “do something
    exceptional” with their limited means? Such as expensive tickets to
    Africa to have your photo taken with African children near a well you
    “helped” dig. I’m pretty sure the kids that can’t afford the $50 fee to
    take the SATs also can’t afford Irish step dancing classes. Or pole
    vaulting, fencing, or any of the other activities that might set them

    In fact, GPAs are subjective from school to school, as
    there is no way to standarize the humans that are responsible for
    grades. This is evident in schools that have students with high GPAs and low standarized test scores.

    measure intelligence. I think that the socioeconomic theory falls to
    the wayside when you look at three or four kids in the same upper middle
    class family. Are they ALL going to top 20 colleges? According to your
    math, they have all had rich kid treatment; all the opportunities,
    expensive tutors, expensive practice books. Why then, is there not more
    uniformity among upper middle class families?

    And really, of the
    people I know who have attended top 20 colleges, they are not kids who
    have tutors or spent all their time studying. They are inherently
    intelligent, self-motivated, sophisticated thinkers.

    It is
    ignorant to jump on the “rich kids get everything” demographic train.
    You will be exposed to many new ideas in your college journey…but you
    may want to really take a deep breath and view the world around you
    before condemning. The SATs began in 1900 as a college readiness test.
    That’s what it is. Whether you are rich, poor, in between…if you don’t
    achieve on the SAT, chances are you are not prepared for an education
    at a top university. Be honest in 20 years when you hopefully have some
    real world experience and reread this.

    For now, read The
    Fountainhead. Have your epiphanic moment. Rip up your artwork. Then read
    Old School, and come back to earth where there are so many humans
    applying to college we need a test like the SAT to help sort them out.

    In the end, cream rises to the top. That’s behind the success of so many beautiful creatures, like James Baldwin.

    won’t guarantee your success. But there is some poor Joe dragging his
    reduced fee books to the second tier college he is attending because his
    life was rife with disadvantages and void of advantages. One day he
    will do something super. Look at all the wonderfully successful people
    who have gone to crappy schools no one has heard of.

    You actually
    sound condescending, entitled and privileged, to suggest the
    educational rift could be healed by eliminating standardized tests so
    more poor people can go to top colleges. There are so many hungry,
    homeless, abused people roaming this earth…most of the poor people you
    speak of will be happy to have an education and get a job.

    remind me of this girl who, for her community service project, collected
    used haute couture prom dresses for poor people. She thought everyone
    should have 5th floor dresses for that special occasion. Your hashtag
    should be, “Let them eat cake!”

  • Lemonique Jones

    It sounds like the author is saying blacks and hispanics are not as smart as whites and asians. Seems racist to me.

    What about using an IQ test instead which prep would have little to no impact?

    Why didn’t the author release her scores? Based on her logic, her math scores are probably worse than her reading/writing because she is a female.