Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Replace the SAT with AP Scores? Uh…

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Jay Mathews was almost onto something in his recent column, Time to Retire the SAT (  In his argument, Mathews shares the best-kept secret in college admissions—many colleges don’t require any standardized testing at all as part of the admissions process.  These colleges have long recognized what Mathews points out:  standardized testing doesn’t tell these colleges much more about students than the colleges already know through the student’s grades, essays, and letters of recommendation, so why put them through the stress of taking the tests? (see the list at

So far, so good—but then Mathews drops the baton just as he nears the finish line:

“Why not replace the SAT and ACT with the Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Advanced International Certificate of Education tests? Those exams are the culmination of college-level courses and encourage critical thinking. They require that students write many of their answers in detail.”

In other words, let’s measure a student’s potential to do college work by evaluating the college work they’ve already done in high school.

This idea defeats the purpose of reform, since any argument about de-stressing the college application process goes completely out the window.  Students who currently feel compelled to take SAT prep classes would now feel the heat to load up on even more AP courses than they currently take—and they would have to take these courses in their junior year in order for colleges to see the AP test results as part of the college admission process.  No pressure there, as long as your school recognizes your academic potential by fifth grade to get you into classes that will set you up for this opportunity.

In addition, this option does little to help colleges sort out students any better than the SAT or ACT.  Highly selective colleges already receive more applicants with high AP scores than they can admit; trading SAT for AP scores simply trades one tool of denial for another, if in fact that is what occurs at highly selective colleges as Mathews claims.  Colleges that admit more students than the highly selective schools would certainly have a clear picture of their top students, but the SAT and ACT already fill that need for these colleges, and students don’t have to complete college-level classes to prepare for those tests.

Most important, Mathews’ solution suggests the best way to predict college success is to have students take college-level classes sooner—but then, what’s the point of high school?  Just like “early college” programs offer students an Associate’s Degree when they finish high school, loading students up with college courses at age 17 denies students the opportunity to explore the breadth of a traditional high school curriculum; their choices are suddenly restricted to courses that colleges already teach.  AP and IB classes may teach college-level material, but do they allow the student a chance to expand their view of the world by taking an art class, exploring the depth of a subject rather than its width (anyone for Creative Writing or Sociology?), or give the student the opportunity to explore the real world through internships, co-op, or independent research at the high school level?

If top colleges don’t need the SAT or ACT to predict a student’s success in college, they don’t need AP or IB scores either. Free of standardized college test pressures, high schools are free to create genuine curriculum reform that is student-centered, not test-centered, reform that will breathe life back into the real purpose of high school—a step that would allow our students to breathe a little as well.

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