SAT Changes Will Not Affect Harvard Admissions

In a bid to satisfy critics including the University of California and advocates for the disabled, the College Board plans major changes to its SAT test—changes that Harvard admissions officers say will not affect how they use it in admissions.

The changes include removing “flags” on SAT score reports indicating tests were administered under special conditions to accommodate student disabilities.

The largest changes came in response to the University of California, which has threatened to stop requiring applicants to take the SAT.

The revisions were in part “business decisions” by the College Board, which owns the SAT, according to Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis ’70-’73.

“California is a large state with many college-bound students,” McGrath Lewis said. “The SAT is a testing company and very concerned that they have the gold standard in testing.”

Beginning in March 2005, the SAT I will include a writing section, which will be similar to the SAT II: Writing test and will include an essay question, the College Board announced last month. Analogies will be eliminated from test and replaced with critical reading passages from a variety of subjects, including science. The math section will include more advanced topics from Algebra II and quantitative comparison questions will be eliminated.

“It shouldn’t be any less useful to us; maybe it will be more useful,” McGrath Lewis said.

“Research has shown that the addition of a writing test provides increased validity in predicting college success, but, more importantly, it sends a loud and clear message that strong writing is essential to success in college and beyond,” said Linda Clement, chair of the College Board trustees and vice president of the University of Maryland at College Park.

Some high school students said they agreed with the decision.

“Adding a writing section to the SAT is a good idea because some are better at writing than math and verbal reasoning,” said David H. Hsu, a rising high school senior and Secondary School Program student.

The other recent change—slated to begin in September 2003—is the elimination of “flags” on SAT score reports, which mark a test as having been taken under special conditions to accommodate students with disabilities.

Removing the flags will eliminate a double-standard that could be used to discriminate against students with disabilities that can be easily accommodated, supporters of the change said.

“Certainly students with disabilities who have a legitimate need for accommodation should not be punished,” said Cathy Horn, a research associate at the Harvard Civil Rights Project.

McGrath Lewis said the admissions office always appreciates as much information as it can get about applicants. Without the flags, admissions officers will have no way to determine the conditions under which applicants took the exam.

“We of course prefer more information than less. We are in the information business,” McGrath Lewis said.

Every year Harvard admits candidates whose SAT scores are “flagged,” McGrath Lewis said. She said she did not have exact numbers for such admitted students, but said that the College received “several hundred” applications with flagged scores each year.

“We’re used to admitting candidates even with the asterisk,” she said. “We don’t discriminate. It’s illegal and it’s not in Harvard’s interest.”

“If someone has a disability that can be accommodated here, we want to make sure we don’t discount their ability,” she said.

Many College applicants who have taken the SAT under special conditions also have taken it under standard conditions, McGrath Lewis said. She said that students will take the SAT with special conditions so they “might represent their talents better.” But she said that “very often” applicants will receive the same score on standard and special versions of the SAT.

When information about an applicant’s disability is available, it is “much more likely to come from students or their family” than from any other source, McGrath Lewis said.

Those who opposed the change away from flagged score reports argued that without flags, many more students without genuine disabilities would push to take the test under non-standard conditions.

“It may produce many more people who have taken this test with non-standard conditions, but I’m not concerned about it,” McGrath Lewis said.

“I had always thought that it was a disadvantage to have extra time,” said Chris C. Campell, an SSP student. “To pool scores of students with extra time indiscriminately with those of students who took the test under timed conditions is not right.”

Despite the recent criticism and planned changes to the SAT, McGrath Lewis said that a standardized test that nearly all applicants take is an important part of an application because it provides a standard measure to compare different candidates.

“We are happy to use any test,” she said. “We like an objective test that tests a large number of candidates.”

Critics of standardized testing said that even with the content changes, the SAT is only useful as a small part of assessing applicants.

“There’s a lot of research on the predictability of the SAT on freshman year performance, and it’s moderate at best,” Horn said.

But McGrath Lewis stressed that that the SAT I and other standardized tests are not as central a factor in the Harvard admissions process as some applicants might believe.

“I don’t think there ever was a case in which tests were a determining factor,” she said. “And I’ve been doing this for 15 years.”

Staff writer Stephanie M. Skier can be reached at skier@fas.harvard.edu.