Beyond numbers: looking at the validity of the SATs

Any hopeful transfer student or freshman hoping to be accepted into a four-year school knows about the Scholastic Aptitude Test: It’s the most widely taken standardized test on the West Coast and is required by nearly every university to be considered for acceptance.

What is the SAT supposed to measure? According to College Board, the organization that designed it, “The SAT doesn’t test logic or abstract reasoning. It tests… reading, writing and math. Your knowledge in these subjects are important for success in college and throughout your life.” They claim it gauges a person’s aptitude for college.

However, here at SPSCC, I have had countless professors tell me that they would not be grading on rote memorization, or the ability to regurgitate facts; they are teaching and grading on critical thinking, a necessary skill to becoming successful in the workforce and in life. So I began to wonder if the SAT was really able to test a person’s propensity for college and life.

For a test to be accurate, it must be both valid, accurately measuring what it claims to measure, and reliable.

“A reliable test will get the same result reliably,” said Toni Dewees, professor of psychology at SPSCC, “Scores can change and it still can be reliable… if the thing they’re measuring is a thing that can change.”

However, a person’s success in college is not something that changes quickly, so a reliable test should reflect that. Yet, a person may take the SAT, study intensely on SAT-type questions, and receive a drastically different score a month later.

John Allen Paulos of ABC News reports “only 10 percent to 20 percent of the variation in first-year GPA is explained by SAT scores.”

Additionally, William Hiss, former Dean of Admissions at Bates College has researched the difference between those who submitted SAT or ACT scores and those who didn’t: with only 0.5 percent difference in GPA and 0.6 percent difference in graduation rates. Research suggests that the SAT and tests like it are neither valid nor reliable.

How can we gauge a person’s aptitude for and success in college? Hiss reports, “The evidence of the study clearly shows that high school GPA matters. Four-year, long-term evidence of self-discipline, intellectual curiosity and hard work; that’s what matters the most.” For transfer students, such as many of those here at SPSCC, GPA is an indicator of how well they will do at a university.

Perhaps GPA predicts success in college, but people need much more than high test scores or good grades to succeed in life. Dewees said that these are “not the whole picture of a person… I think it’s hard to sum up a person in a number.”

The success a person experiences in college and in life is not necessarily quantifiable. However, our society has allowed tests and numbers to shape how we see ourselves, which can be extremely dangerous. People are far more than the numbers used to judge them, but are rather comprised of their experiences and knowledge beyond what tests can measure.

 Correction November 7, 2014:
The headline of the printed version of this article mistakenly capitalized the “s” in SATs.