A proposal that may stifle use of the Scholastic Aptitude Test as a tool in college admissions has ignited a furor in academia.

In May a copy of draft guidelines from the U.S. Department of Education document was leaked and published by the Chronicle of Higher Education. According to the guidelines, colleges would be in danger of violating federal discrimination law simply by employing students' SAT scores as part of their admissions procedures.

The Chronicle said the guidelines, if implemented, “would put colleges and universities in legal jeopardy if they make SAT or ACT scores the primary basis for admissions and financial-aid decisions.”

SATs have been used for more than 40 years as a predictor of student success in college. Since the 1970s, studies have shown that minority students generally perform less well on the tests than whites do.

“That a certain group of students do poorly on the SATs reflects more their preparation in schools than to their being deliberately set up for exclusion by color or culture,” said Jeffrey Penn, a spokesman for the College Board, which sponsors the SATs nationwide.

Diagnostic Tool

Penn contended that tests such as the SAT and American College Test (ACT) actually help diagnose problems in school curricula and provide an important measure for maintaining accountability to students and their parents.

Jennifer Marshall, an educational policy expert at the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., contended that there is no other standardized test that is a better predictor than the SAT.

“The guidelines seem to blame the diagnostic tool for causing the problem, rather than looking beyond to the prism of education over 12 years leading to the test,” she said.

The guidelines in the Education Department's Nondiscrimination in High-Stakes Testing “constitute a direct threat to colleges who make use of SATs as part of the admissions process,” said Bill Evers, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

“Colleges blindfold themselves if they don't make use of this predictor of college success, and students who do well would be cheated,” he said. “However, because of the government origin of the guidelines, colleges who diverge from them could be in jeopardy of losing federal funding for their programs.”

Merely a Resource

Arthur Coleman, deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, maintained that the document is not an attack on SATs. “We produced the guidelines in response to requests from educators for a resource guide related to legal settlements about the use of certain tests, not only SATs, in making educational high-stakes decisions,” he said.

Such decisions range from referrals of students to special education services, student promotions from one grade to another, and student placements in gifted programs to higher education admissions decisions and scholarship awards.

Coleman continued, “We tried to capture up front what the long-term implications for schools are if they use standardized tests inappropriately, based on equal opportunity case law today. The guidelines represent our effort to assist educators minimize the risk of litigation as they design policies regarding the use of tests with high-stakes consequences for students.”

Julie Underwood, a general counsel for the National School Board Association, said the purpose of the guidelines is to explain to lay people the legal parameters of high-stakes testing such as the SAT. The guidelines, she added, are designed to help educators understand where the pitfalls are in using standardized tests for important educational decisions, and to act accordingly.

“The document has information based on 15 years of legal opinions in federal courts related to discrimination in education,” Underwood said.

‘Shooting the Messenger’

Edward Blum and Marc Levin of the Campaign for a Color-Blind America Legal Defense and Educational Foundation criticized the guidelines as “shooting the messenger.”

In an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal, Blum and Levin wrote that “Poor minority performance on standardized tests is a reflection of poor primary and secondary education in minority neighborhoods,” which could be addressed “by reforming teaching methods and curricula at primary and secondary schools.”

Catholic colleges and universities are as likely as other private and state institutions to employ SAT results in making admissions decisions. Their place in the process, however, often varies from one college to the next.

At colleges such as Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., where SATs are an important guideline but not a primary part of admissions criteria, officials say they are not as concerned about the guidelines as those who give them greater importance.

At Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, which received 6,300 applications for this fall, the admissions criteria vary from college to college, according to Matt Fissinger, director of admissions. “The university does not apply a particular formula to each applicant because the general parameters are set by representatives of our six individual [schools],” he said. “We have no computer-assisted sorting. The SAT is an important starting point for us, but not the be-all and end-all.”

Major Impact

At larger institutions, especially those who receive federal grants, the impact of the guidelines may be significant. Raelee Siporne, a director of admissions at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the guidelines represent “a very complicated issue” and that the university, along with many others, has asked the Department of Education for more time to respond to the guidelines.

Evers at the Hoover Institution pointed out the difficulty of evaluating an applicant: “In college admissions, you need to draw on several things to get a reasonable prediction of how well students will do. Grades alone are not as good as the SAT and grades. There is a lot of variation from one school to another school as to what constitutes an ‘A.’ Relying on more subjective measures such as an essay or interview is iffy since the attitude of the evaluator can affect decisions. You want to have some objective standard. Of course, the more measures you have, the better off you are.”

The Department of Education guidelines, which are expected to be officially published in September, may dramatically change the landscape of college admissions policy in America.

Marshall of the Family Research Council said, “If this document is implemented, it may make colleges fearful enough that SATs will fall into disuse.”

Blum and Levin predicted that the guidelines have “put the nation's finest universities on an escalator heading down. Students, parents and educators will be the losers in this race to the bottom.”

Martha Lepore is based in Coronado, California.