Why the SAT Needs to Be Harder

For highly selective college admissions, the SAT is too easy.

Posted Mar 07, 2014

In a recent New York Times article, Maria Laskaris, dean of admissions of Dartmouth, expressed a legitimate concern:

“My first thought was it’s going to make it harder to distinguish anything based on this piece of data...With grade inflation, enormous variation in high school rigor and a surplus of excellent applicants, a test like the ACT or SAT is, for the moment, the only thing that is standard across all our applicants.”

In the following piece, originally published in Education Week in 2012, I explain why the SAT needs to be harder, at least for students applying to the nation's most highly selective schools.

The SAT Needs To Be Harder

Every year, hundreds of thousands of high school seniors with nearly impeccable academic records submit their applications to highly selective colleges. And every year, the admissions officers at these schools have to find a way to decide how to allocate the limited number of seats in each of their freshman classes.

How do they do it?

For just about every highly selective school, the major selection criteria are a student’s SAT scores, high school grade point average, the difficulty of coursework, and extracurricular participation. Each school emphasizes different measurements depending upon its institutional focus; however, there remains one constant that plays a very large role in admissions: the SAT.

Tens of thousands of students every year who are in direct competition for the slots at the nation's most elite universities are likely in danger that the SAT will not capture the true level of their academic ability.

Admissions officers at schools like Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale will tell you that there’s an issue: The vast majority of students whose applications they review have perfect or near-perfect GPAs and SAT scores, so these metrics can’t be used to distinguish between the very best candidates. This means that other yardsticks—such as a student’s involvement in extracurricular activities—have become, by default, much more important because the objective academic metrics don’t have enough headroom.

Every year, over 200,000 intellectually talented 7th graders from across the country take the SAT, which is designed for the average 11th grader, to distinguish the academically tall from the academically giant. By the time those students get to the 11th grade, a majority of them will likely reach within 100 to 200 points of a perfect score. But this is simply because the test is not challenging enough for them.

Today, a perfect score on the SAT is 2400. A score of 3000 or 4000 is not currently possible, but that is because the test is simply not hard enough to measure a score that high. But if the test were more difficult, who’s to say that some of these talented students might not be able to achieve a higher score?

One way to solve this problem would be for the Educational Testing Service to design a harder SAT, and for all we know, something like this is already in the works. But for the purposes of selective college admissions, I offer a much simpler and more pragmatic solution for the short term: Highly selective colleges should require the GRE—or another graduate-school admissions exam—instead of the SAT as a measurement of academic aptitude. This is because the GRE is essentially just a harder SAT.

Tens of thousands of students every year who are in direct competition for the slots at the nation’s most elite universities are likely in danger that the SAT will not capture the true level of their academic ability. This can put them at a disadvantage in the college-admissions process.

Of course, one could argue that even these graduate-admissions exams wouldn’t have enough headroom for the most talented students. But if selective colleges required a test that were at least more difficult than the SAT, it would likely reduce the problem.

This would ease the dilemma of admissions officers seeing a perfect 2400 on the SAT and not knowing whether that student has the academic potential to exceed the demands of the test.

If talented high school students took a harder test, it could also have a secondary effect: teaching them a greater sense of humility at a critical moment in their lives.

© 2012 by Jonathan Wai

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