Thoughts about the SAT and ACT Tests

Damned lies and statistics

posted 7/30/05

Going thru high school a decade ago, teachers and counselors repeated themselves endlessly on the awesome importance of the SAT and ACT tests. Without taking (and, it was implied, doing well on) these standardized academic examinations (the Standardized Aptitude Test and the American College Test), our chances of getting into college – any college, even a lowly two-year vocational school in the middle of nowhere – were laughably small.

This, I recently learned, was something of an exaggeration. In fact, I'd call it an outright lie. It wouldn't be the first time teachers had lied to me, but those who did opt to take these tests might be rather more surprised to discover it's real significance, or lack thereof.

What follows is a discussion of the academic admissions standards for one college, the University of Michigan's College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. Nonetheless, as this sort of small, non-ivy-league school makes up the clear majority of colleges and universities, it's a useful measure of real-world standards, and an opportunity to discuss the significance of SAT and ACT scores in other than theoretical terms. The statistics are taken from a 2003 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, in the context of discussion of Gratz v. Bollinger. As these sorts of admission criteria are not normally made public, I can't be positive that these are the exact figures in present-day use, but they are still useful as an exemplar.

In reviewing applications, the College assigns points to each candidate using guidelines in a “selection index”. There are 150 possible points, of which 110 are based on academic achievements. Up to 80 points are given for an applicant's high-school GPA. Up to 10 points may be given for having gone to an “academically strong” school, and up to 8 further points may be had for having taken a more challenging curriculum (advanced placement classes, college-in-the-schools courses, and the like, I presume). The remaining twelve points – a mere ten percent of the academic points, and just eight percent of all available points – are given based on ACT and SAT scores.

For contrast, consider the nonacademic points. If you're a Michigan resident, you get 10 points right off the bat. If you're from a county underrepresented in the student body, you get a further two points. If one of your parents is an alumni of the school, you get four free points, and another one for another relative alumni. Five points are available for leadership and service skills and abilities; five more can be had for “strong character, persistence, and commitment to ideals”. A mere three points hinge on the quality, originality, and subject matter of one's admissions essay. Last but most certainly not least, up to 20 points are up for grabs for those with “socioeconomic disadvantage, membership in an underrepresented minority group, attendance at a predominantly minority or predominantly socioeconomically disadvantaged high school” or athletic ability.

So, in context, how important are the SAT and ACT for admission? Equal to coming from a rural part of the state. Four times as important as your entrance essay, but just over half as important as being poor, a minority, or having gone to a poor or minority high school. Just barely more important than having gone to an “academically strong” high school, and just a third more than having taken challenging classes.

Oh, and the actual admission requirement? Of 150 points, 80 points are required for residents, 75 for nonresidents. So, by one way of thinking, passing for the admission exam is about 50 percent.

I was always skeptical of the importance of the SAT and ACT, seeing them as little more than opportunities to bestow bragging rights on those who least need them. In light of the University of Michigan's admission scoring – remember, SAT and ACT scores account for just eight percent of the available points – I am now more skeptical than ever of the real-world importance of these academic benchmarks. I know I had many better things to do while in high school than studying for or taking these tests, and I dare say that holds true for most students these days.


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