US faith in SATs waning as school marks prove better pointers to student success

August 13, 2004

This autumn, for the 79th year, university-bound students across the US will file into test rooms to confront the nation's pre-eminent admissions examination with a mix of scorn and fear.

Scorn because the US SAT is widely criticised as favouring white males and high-income youngsters over females, non-whites and underprivileged students.

Fear because, in spite of this, three out of four US universities rely heavily on it when deciding which applicants to admit.

The SAT controversy is perennial. This year it prompted the second large-scale revision of the test in ten years, with the addition of an essay section to the multiple-choice questions.

The time limit will be raised to four hours from three, and the scoring formula will change.

A growing number of America's most selective universities no longer require applicants to take the SAT, relying instead on secondary-school grades, interviews and other criteria.

That is because the SAT - even by the admission of the confederation of universities that administers it, the College Board - does a worse job of predicting first-year university success than a student's high-school grade-point average.

A survey of 1,371 people who became millionaires found their SAT scores had been below that required by selective universities. Non-whites and low-income students also do not do as well as white middle-class applicants. This is blamed largely on differences in school quality between poor and affluent communities and the advantages of those from wealthier families who can afford to pay for tutoring to raise SAT scores.

But the differences between females and males are harder to explain. While girls get better grades in high school and at university, they continue to score lower than boys on the SAT, regardless of race or income.

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