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SAT Wars: The Case for Test-Optional College Admissions

reviewed by Liz Hollingworth - June 01, 2012

coverTitle: SAT Wars: The Case for Test-Optional College Admissions
Author(s): Joseph A. Soares (ed.)
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807752622, Pages: 240, Year: 2011
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SAT Wars: The Case for Test-Optional College Admissions is a collection of essays calling for a reevaluation of the role of the SAT in making higher education admissions decisions. All but 3 of the 12 chapters originated from a conference organized by Wake Forest University in 2009 (p. 3), which is the site of an institutional case study documented in the text. The book’s editor, Joseph Soares, is a professor of sociology at Wake Forest University. In short, the authors give four main reasons to go test-optional: (1) high school GPA is a better predictor of college success than the SAT, which adds less than 2% to the prediction equation; (2) the SAT tests are expensive and time consuming; (3) the link between family income and SAT “assures that students who have had the greatest opportunities in life are further advantaged in terms of access to higher education” (p. 159); and (4) eliminating the SAT as a barrier to college admissions results in significant changes in the demographics of the applicant pool. In contrast, Chapter 10, “Test Scores Do Not Equal Merit: Deemphasizing Standardized Tests in College Admissions” (Schaeffer, 2012), provides three reasons that universities might not want to move to a test-optional admissions policy: (1) universities’ U.S. News and World Report rankings may be negatively affected; (2) raising average test scores of an incoming freshman class “is a cheap way to create the impression of raising academic standards” (p. 161); and (3) SAT test scores are a piece of data about the students that does not cost the universities anything.

The most interesting chapter is the case study presented in Chapter 11, “Going Test-Optional: A First Year of Challenges, Surprises, and Rewards” by Martha Allman, the dean of admissions at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The story of Wake Forest’s highly publicized 2008 decision to eliminate the requirement for SAT for admissions provides a colorful and well-documented account of the benefits and practical challenges that arose from the SAT-optional policy. Most important, the policy resulted in significant changes in the demographics of the freshman class: Applications from students of color increased 46%, and applications by African Americans were up 70% (p. 173). The chapter goes on to detail some of the practical considerations about interviewing every potential student when achievement test data are no longer part of the admissions decision process.


Part One of the book gives a limited history of how the SAT became a ubiquitous predictor of college readiness. For those who are interested in a more expanded view of the history, here are a few other books to be read alongside SAT Wars: The Case Against the S.A.T (Crouse, 1988); The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (Lemann, 2000); and Fair Game? The Use of Standardized Admissions Tests in Higher Education (Zwick, 2002).

Chapter 2 by Atkinson and Geiser, “Reflections on a Century Of College Admissions Tests,” does not take into account changes in K–12 testing since the 2009 Race to the Top grant initiative by the U.S. Department of Education, which resulted in the creation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) initiative, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). Despite the 2012 press date, there is no conversation in the book about the K–12 CCSS adopted in 2011 and the potential effects on higher education of a national curriculum and a national assessment from SBAC and PARCC. Scores from a national assessment might be a more robust indicator of student progress, success, and college potential than the SAT, or any other test to date.

In the end, the book is a one-sided conversation about the use of standardized achievement test data to make decisions about student readiness for college. Sloppily, the ACT gets thrown under the bus along with the SAT by some of the authors who are quick to disparage all standardized multiple-choice tests—a stance that serves to discredit the overall argument specifically about the SAT made by the authors. Also, short shrift is given to the SAT II and the different kinds of information that can be gleaned from student data from content-based tests, as opposed to aptitude tests. In addition, the book takes a strange, unnecessary side trip asking ETS for item-level fairness data. There is also a lack of consistency from chapter to chapter about what exactly is being predicted by the SAT: College GPA in the first year? GPA at college graduation? Student graduation rates after eight semesters? After 6 years?

More important, the unbalanced feel of the book is due to the fact that it is a conversation among the SAT’s end users: higher education researchers and college admissions officers. Soares warns the reader in the introduction that the overarching theme of the book is a call to take back the conversation about what data should be used to make decisions about college applicants. However, the conversation requires a bridge with the K–12 (or at least high school) community to help put student GPAs and other test scores into context. In addition, the voices of test developers are important to add for a more balanced picture about the technical validity and appropriate uses of student achievement test data from the SAT.


Crouse, J. (1988). The case against the S.A.T. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Lemann, N. (2000). The big test: The secret history of the American meritocracy. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Zwick, R. (2002). Fair game? The use of standardized admissions tests in higher education. New York, NY: Routledge.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 01, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16781, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 7:13:11 PM

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About the Author
  • Liz Hollingworth
    University of Iowa
    E-mail Author
    LIZ HOLLINGWORTH is a professor in the College of Education at the University of Iowa. Her research and teaching interests are centered on curriculum, leadership, and assessment. In particular, her work explores how federal school reform policies affect classroom practice. Her most recent book is Teach Reading, Not Testing: Best Practice in an Age of Accountability, published by Corwin Press. Her other books include Organization and Administration of Iowa Public and Private Schools and Complicated Conversations: Race and Ideology in an Elementary Classroom.
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