SAT Wars: The Case for Test-Optional College Admissions

SAT Wars: The Case for Test-Optional College Admissions

Teachers College Press (2011)

Joseph A. Soares (Editor)


Reviewed by Catherine Horn

Joseph A. Soares’ edited volume, SAT Wars: The Case for Test-Optional College Admissions, is a collection of essays written to address three broad areas: the history of admissions and testing; institutional case studies, new approaches, and the removal of test bias; and evaluations of test-optional policies. While the authors vary in their specific perspectives, analytical approaches, and inferences, as the editor notes in the final chapter, all share the conclusions that high school grades represent the best predictor of college success, and that colleges and universities need to carefully (re)consider the “effectiveness and fairness” of their admissions practices.

Chapters in this book use varying evidence to argue the utility of test-optional college admissions. For example, “SAT Wars at the University of California” (John Aubrey Douglass) provides an historical analysis of the UC system’s use of the SAT (I and II) as an admissions tool for more than 40 years, drawing attention to the shifting policy and political influences that have been brought to bear in those decisions. Several single- and multi-campus case studies offer more fine-grained empirical analyses of both the SAT’s predictive validity of college success and the statistically modeled and actual outcomes of alternative admissions approaches. The book also includes several chapters detailing the implementation experiences of institutions as they shifted to completely test-optional and/or modified admissions policies.

“Use of the SAT as a consequential admissions tool has serious limitations that, in general, substantially outweigh any benefits.”

This collection of work nestles within a broad and deep literature that has critiqued the SAT across several fronts (e.g., Fleming & Garcia, 1998; Rothstein, 2003; Zwick & Himelfarb, 2011) and, in most ways, serves largely as reiteration of what has been a longstanding conclusion: that use of the SAT as a consequential admissions tool has serious limitations that, in general, substantially outweigh any benefits. Perhaps the greatest strength of this book is the inclusion of selective campus case studies that present honest assessments of the challenges and benefits of moving away from test-based reviews of college applicants toward more holistic reviews. The particulars of implementation may prove helpful as college and university leaders on similar campuses consider similar efforts.

What is notably missing, however, is a close look at moderately or modestly selective (public and private) institutions, which both constitute the vast majority of colleges and universities in the United States (Kane, 1998) and represent a group still deeply committed to SAT use. As the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) describes in its State of College Admission report (Clinedinst & Hawkins, 2011), while 54 percent of responding selective institutions attribute considerable importance to test scores in admissions decisions, 55, 61, and 58 percent of the decreasingly selective institutions (by acceptance rate categories) place similar weight, respectively. This difference is further exacerbated by the fact that more selective institutions tend to place emphasis on greater numbers of additional factors in the admissions process relative to their less selective counterparts. Given the role that these institutions serve, SAT Wars would have been stronger with such discussions included.

Campus leaders interested in the possibility of implementing test-optional admissions policies may find this volume helpful. While the arguments in Soares’ book are not novel, they represent an important group of voices that once again remind readers that “our world is not best served by a test-score social Darwinism in support of a collegiate caste system” (p. 209).


Clinedinst , M. & Hawkins, D. (2011). State of college admission. Arlington, VA: National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Fleming, J., & Garcia, N. (1998). Are standardized tests fair to African Americans? Predictive validity of the SAT in Black and White institutions. The Journal of Higher Education, 69(5), 471-495.

Kane, T. (1998). Misconceptions in the debate over affirmative action in college admissions. In G. Orfield & E. Miller (Eds.), Chilling admissions: The affirmative action crisis and search for alternatives. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Publishing Group.

Rothstein, J. M. (2003). College performance predictions and the SAT. Journal of Econometrics, 121(1-2), 297-317.

Zwick, R., & Himelfarb, I. (2011). The effect of high school socioeconomic status on the predictive validity of SAT scores and high school grade point average. Journal of Educational Measurement 48(2), 101-121.

Catherine Horn is Associate Professor in the Educational Psychology department at University of Houston.



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