“These reforms send an important signal to high school students across America,” said Harvard College Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William Fitzsimmons ’67. “The new SAT will help prepare our future citizens for leadership roles in the nation and the world.”

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Nation & World

A change for the better

long read

Admissions dean lauds reform of SAT test, which may help to level playing field

The College Board, the organization that administers the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), announced plans this month to overhaul the standardized test by 2016.  In addition to reverting to its old scoring system based on a total of 1,600 points, the revamped college entrance exam will cover more vocabulary words relevant to success in college courses, focus on three areas of mathematics that are important to college work, make the essay portion of the test optional, and direct more assessment to evidence and argument.  

In general, the new exam is designed to be more curriculum-based to encourage students to make the most of their daily coursework.  In addition, the College Board will collaborate with the nonprofit Khan Academy to provide free test preparation for students.

In 2008, Harvard College Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William Fitzsimmons ’67 chaired a commission convened by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) that took a critical look at the SAT and other standardized testing.  The group, which included participants from colleges, secondary schools, and others with testing expertise, made a number of recommendations, many of them reflected in the changes made by the College Board. The NACAC report has gathered increasing attention since its release and has often been cited for encouraging colleges to conduct validity studies of the usefulness of standardized tests and to drop such tests if they do not prove valuable in predicting academic success.

Last year, Fitzsimmons met with College Board president David Coleman to discuss the 2008 committee’s findings, as well as proposals to rework the test. The Gazette sat down with Fitzsimmons to discuss the planned changes to the SAT.

GAZETTE:  What are your thoughts about the proposed changes to the SAT?

FITZSIMMONS:  I’m delighted that the voice of the NACAC commission has been heard, and I commend David Coleman and the College Board for moving so quickly to address its recommendations.

These reforms send an important signal to high school students across America.  If you work hard in the classroom on a daily basis, you will significantly improve your chances of doing well on the SAT and graduating from the college of your choice.  Most important of all, you will be better able to embrace learning in all its forms, from the humanities to the social sciences, the natural sciences, engineering, and mathematics.  The new SAT will help prepare our future citizens for leadership roles in the nation and the world.

The new test will be more deeply aligned with the knowledge and skills that will enable students to appreciate great literature, recognize the beauty of mathematics, and access cutting-edge science and the fundamentals of engineering.  With the free test-prep, students from all economic backgrounds can acquire the knowledge they need not just to succeed on the test, but to succeed in college and beyond.

GAZETTE:  Did the NACAC commission address the controversial issue of test prep?

FITZSIMMONS:  Yes.  Just as we believed that a more curriculum-based SAT would serve high schools and colleges more effectively, we concluded that it would be much better for students to “test prep” by studying over a long period of time the kinds of things that would be vital for college access rather than spending much time and money for short-term “quick-fixes” that supposedly “gamed the test,” but in fact did not.

It had been clear for some time that short-term test prep (which is often very expensive) produced very little return.  In fact, many of the inflated claims made by test-prep companies in the past were eventually eliminated after the federal government started looking into their claims.  (The NACAC research is available to the public here.) There is no shortcut to doing well on standardized tests.  Studying English and mathematics over a long period of time in the classroom, using free or low-cost publications (available in local libraries, guidance offices or online) on your own or as part of a program — or, to use testing parlance, all of the above — are likely to produce academic success in the classroom and, incidentally, better test scores.

The truth is that if students have been lucky enough to attend excellent schools, they probably don’t need test prep.  For those not so fortunate, long-term test prep of all kinds — sometimes offered pro-bono by test prep companies and community organizations — can make a real difference to their academic success in college.  The free test prep provided by the College Board and Khan Academy will help level the playing field for students from middle-income and most economic backgrounds.

GAZETTE:  What are some of the other commission recommendations that have contributed to public policy over the past few years?

FITZSIMMONS:  One of the most important findings is that every college should conduct research demonstrating that doing well on whatever standardized test was required actually predicts academic success.  Some colleges reflexively require standardized testing just because it’s always been done, instead of actually looking at the predictive power of standardized testing for students’ performance once they arrive at college.  Testing 101 says that if you’re going to require a test, it should actually matter.  A fair number of colleges heeded this advice and conducted validity testing that led to making tests optional.

GAZETTE:  Could you ever envision Harvard eliminating the SAT from its admissions process or making standardized tests optional?

FITZSIMMONS:  Not based on the evidence we have compiled over the years.  We receive about 35,000 applications annually, representing thousands of secondary schools in the United States and all over the world, ones we know and many that are new.  We have applicants who are home-schooled, and those who have had a wide array of formal and informal schooling.  Some schools give grades; some don’t.  Standardized tests provide a rough yardstick — a blunt instrument of sorts — to compare our applicants.

GAZETTE:  How big a role do test scores play in admissions decisions?

FITZSIMMONS:  Test scores are just one element of our holistic review.  They can be helpful when they are particularly high or low but only in concert with high school grades, teacher recommendations, guidance counselor reports, interviews, essays, and all the achievements a student reports on the application. Our research indicates that students with high test scores but poor high school grades are not a good bet for success at Harvard.  Those with more modest scores and strong records of achievement in the high school classroom are more likely to do well.

Generally speaking, tests that are more curriculum-based are better predictors of success at Harvard.  High school grades obviously provide the base, but results of AP exams, SAT subject tests, International Baccalaureate and other standard foreign curriculum exams, and the SAT and ACT are all factors that contribute to predicting academic success here.  So we have always recognized the values of standardized testing, and we give advice on our website about the variety of different ways students can provide evidence of academic achievement.

GAZETTE:  What are some of the things students can do to provide this information?

FITZSIMMONS:  We are always very interested in evidence of unusual achievements, academic or extracurricular.  If you’re a great poet, we’d love to have you send your poetry along.  You could send your short stories or mathematical solutions or computer programs or your life sciences research.  Whatever it is you have done, we want to get that information to make the best possible case for your admission.

GAZETTE:  Who reviews this additional information?

FITZSIMMONS:  Our teaching faculty play a critical role in evaluating applications and in assessing academic work submitted by students.  They can tell us who are most likely to be truly unusual academically — those who will comprise the next generation of scholars.

A good example is the role of our eminent math department in identifying the top few math students, those who are truly creative, from an applicant pool that contains 17,000 students who scored 700 or better on the SAT math test.  Harvard’s math team has won the national math contest, the Putnam competition, 19 of the past 27 years.  Many of the nation’s and world’s best math students are in the Harvard applicant pool.  Our math professors read the applications of those the admissions staff have identified as particularly promising.  Beyond having high math scores on standardized tests, some applicants have done well in national or international math contests or have sent their original work in mathematics.  In some instances, our math professors will call or email applicants for more information or contact the students’ teachers.  Everything is done to identify the students who will one day contribute uniquely to the field of mathematics.

Music provides another good example of the important role faculty play.  In recent years, we’ve had about 3,000 music CDs and résumés submitted each year.  Members of our staff review them and send the best ones to faculty, who will do the official evaluations by each instrument and voice.  Harvard’s wonderful music does not happen by accident.

GAZETTE:  So, you are trying to use many factors to differentiate between students with strong grades and test scores?

FITZSIMMONS:  Yes, with 35,000 people applying, you can see that standardized test scores are relatively unimportant in the end, because most of the people who apply have strong scores and grades and are fully qualified to be here.  So the real question is to try to get beyond the test scores and grades.  Examples of applicants’ accomplishments in math or music, to name just a couple of areas, help us do that. The people who have the energy, the drive, and commitment to do something unusual in math, music, athletics, theater, or any activity have transferable sets of skills.  It’s human potential that now happens to be directed, say, at women’s rugby, but could also be directed at any other kind of activity during college and later.

GAZETTE:  Do you think standardized tests disadvantage students from under-resourced backgrounds?

FITZSIMMONS:  There has always been a steep linear correlation between socioeconomic background and test scores.  The SAT and the ACT are, in a sense, general lifetime achievement tests affected profoundly by opportunity.  Many communities continue to face formidable economic challenges.  There are public schools in the United States with no guidance counselors at all, or a ratio of 1,000 students per counselor.  Teaching staffs have been cut, along with music, arts, athletics, and other academic and extracurricular opportunities.  Not only do students from modest economic backgrounds have less access to academic resources, but they often cannot afford the lessons or equipment for music or sports, or the transportation, summer programs, and other infrastructure required to excel in such extracurricular activities.

GAZETTE:  Given the daunting odds facing such students, what can be done to help them succeed?

FITZSIMMONS: Much is being done by federal, state, and local governments.  Community organizations, foundations, and the private sector are also playing critical roles in helping teachers and parents to encourage students to make the most of their talents and achieve the excellence required to be competitive today.  The stakes are high.  America’s leadership role in the world in the next generation will be profoundly affected by whether or not we are able to make it possible for students from modest and poor economic backgrounds to achieve the American dream.

Harvard’s revolutionary financial aid program, now 10 years old, sends a clear and inspiring message to students and their families.  Admitted students with annual family incomes less than $65,000 pay nothing; those with incomes up to $150,000 pay 0-10 percent.  Loans are not required.  Students on financial aid, as in the past, continue to contribute to the cost of their own education by working 10 to 12 hours a week during the school year and by working a summer job.

Harvard’s capital campaign has a goal of $600 million for undergraduate financial aid, the largest priority of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.  Access for students of excellence from all economic backgrounds is a core value of Harvard that has helped make the University what it is today.  Ken Griffin’s recent gift of $150 million, mostly for financial aid, has received national and international attention and will help ensure that the gates of Harvard will remain open to outstanding students from all economic backgrounds for generations to come.

GAZETTE:  Last year when you met with the president of the College Board, was he simply reviewing the 2008 report with you, or did he solicit more feedback from you about the kinds of changes he was planning to make to the SAT?

FITZSIMMONS:  Really, all of the above.  We had a good talk, and because he had already read the NACAC commission’s report and had gone through a lot of the same research, we covered a lot of ground quickly.  He is very data-driven, as we are.  We discussed the importance of validity studies, free test prep for all students, and the need to make the test more curriculum based.

Another key item we addressed was the fact that the NACAC testing commission itself consisted of a very diverse group of people who came at these questions from very different perspectives.  It was important to him that the commission represented a broad consensus of people who were involved in different aspects of college admissions, secondary schools, and other related stakeholders.  Of course, David and I continue to discuss this and other issues as implementation of the new SAT proceeds.

GAZETTE:  How soon will you know if these changes have succeeded?

FITZSIMMONS:  It will take a while, perhaps a generation, to see the full effects.  I’m optimistic that we will succeed in “moving the needle,” as David puts it, more quickly than many people think.  This is one of the most significant changes in the 40-plus years I have been in college admissions, and I look forward to getting the word out through our recruiting and financial aid programs that anything is possible, including a Harvard education, for students who work hard to make the most of their talents.