Is the SAT truly a fair test of potential in today's world?

Is the SAT truly a fair test of potential in today's world?

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One of the many test preparation centres that promise students (and parents) higher scores.
One of the many test preparation centres that promise students (and parents) higher scores.
Photo: David Wong/SCMP

It's that time of the year again when candidates are eagerly preparing for the SAT, a standardised university entrance exam that is designed to test students' "readiness for university".

Millions of students take it every year, with a lot of American universities requiring either a score on the SAT or the ACT, a similar examination.

The SAT, as many know, comprises three categories: mathematics, critical reading, and writing.

Although the College Board, the organisation in charge of conducting the exam, stresses that it measures the "skills required for success in the 21st century", this isn't always the case.

Thousands of test preparation books and intensive training centres have popped up around the world, offering to boost students' SAT scores.

Students often prepare for the SAT through a combination of intense memorisation and repeated practice, with the test centres each devising their own method for getting a good score on the SAT.

There are also "SAT camps" around the world, most prominently in South Korea and the mainland, where students repeatedly practise the SAT for an extended period of time, ranging from days to weeks to even months over the summer holiday.

Is a test like the SAT really an indicator of success in university? Some critics say the SAT is irrelevant, pointing to one part of the critical reading section, where students have to fill in blanks with difficult words.

Although a varied vocabulary is certainly useful, how many people would use the words "adumbrate" and "diaphanous" in day-to-day situations?

The three key skills that the SAT attempts to test - reading, maths and writing - are certainly important. But there are other skills that are certainly just as, if not more, important, such as critical thinking and problem solving.

The SAT has promised to reform the decades-old exam for 2016.

A new SAT exam, with less emphasis on vocabulary, and more emphasis on knowledge used in day-to-day situations, will be presented next year.

Although this will certainly improve the SAT, it will still remain a poor indicator of potential success as long as preparation books and centres exist.

Most secondary schools have realised this, which is why many of them offer other programmes and courses, such as the International Baccalaureate (IB) and Advanced Placement (AP).

Universities, too, are beginning to use other methods, such as interviews and essays, when trying to determine a candidate's potential for success.

But the SAT still remains a vital part of the admissions process, and there is much need for change in the exam's style and format.

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Is the SAT truly afair test of potential?

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