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NYT contributors debate the SAT

Today’s New York Times features a debate between higher education experts on whether the SAT is a useful tool for college admissions. David Z. Hambrick, an associate professor of pyschology and Michigan State University, defended the test:

Furthermore, the SAT is largely a measure of general intelligence. Scores on the SAT correlate very highly with scores on standardized tests of intelligence, and like IQ scores, are stable across time and not easily increased through training, coaching or practice. SAT preparation courses appear to work, but the gains are small — on average, no more than about 20 points per section.

This debate is ultimately about intelligence and its modifiability — and the question of whether it is fair to use people’s scores on what is essentially an intelligence test to make decisions that profoundly affect their lives. If that makes us all uncomfortable, that’s just too bad.

Jane S. Shaw, President of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, had this to say:

Only two groups benefit much from raising their scores. One is the group aiming at the most selective colleges; near-perfect scores can make the difference between acceptance and rejection. To be in the running for these schools, however, students have spent the past decade developing academic skills; test preparation gives a relatively small boost.

At the other end of the scale are students who may not have a lot of aptitude in the first place and who weren’t paying attention during most of middle and high school. Without help, their scores will be terrible. Formal preparation could enable these students to gain college acceptance. But many of these students should not attend college at all.

For the vast majority of high school students, the improvement provided by test preparation companies is unlikely to be worth what it costs. If you have the score that the College Board considers “college-ready” (1550 out of 2400), many good schools are open to you.

If, however, you need outside support to get near 1550, meaningful academic work could be a hard slog. Perhaps you should give yourself a year of work experience or build up your skills by attending a community college.

Shaw was quoted in a recent story by The College Fix about Occupy Wall Street’s campaign to abolish student debt. Read it here.

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