The U.S. College Board's SAT used to be crucial to the highly competitive process of getting into the top American colleges and universities. The standardized test has been criticized for many years, due to cultural bias and the reality that scores are not a strong predictor of academic success. The rise of a rival test, the ACT, and continued criticism led to recently announced major changes to the SAT. Canadian students – save for the several thousand each year vying for places in the top American colleges and universities – are spared the test experience. Is this a good thing?
Standardized tests are a mixed bag. While they provide insights into the applicants' core abilities, particularly writing and math skills, they are not particularly effective in determining which students will do well at university. Other measures, particularly high-school grades, provide a more accurate measure. Parental income and parental educational levels can also predict which students will succeed, but these are standards that speak more to privilege than student ability and therefore are not appropriate for Canada's egalitarian postsecondary system.
Despite these liabilities, elite American institutions still rely on these tests. The reason is simple:
The top U.S. colleges and universities receive thousands of applications for a relatively small number of spots. At top tier universities, like Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Columbia, MIT and Princeton, fewer than 10 per cent of applicants are accepted. Given that self-selection limits the submissions to high performers these institutions have to sift through many high quality applicants to find the select few that will be accepted.
In such circumstances, the SAT is one of many criterion, including high school grades, extra-curricular activities, evidence of leadership, and high-level performance in sports or the arts. American universities with open admissions, and there are many of them, do not require the SAT to differentiate between applicants. Put simply, the SAT or other standardized tests provide additional information about individual students that can be used as part of a complex, expensive and time-consuming admissions process.
Canadian institutions take an easier route. As publicly-funded institutions, Canadian universities focus on readily available and standardized information, like high-school grades, that do not require students to invest in extra tests (and the expensive SAT training courses). While elite programs at the top universities attract many applications, most Canadian institutions and basic programs actually struggle to find the right number of qualified applicants. An additional test would likely be a deterrent for lesser-qualified high-school graduates without providing a great deal of benefit to the institution's selection process.
Consider the admission realities at a couple of top schools. In 2011, the prestigious Engineering program at the University of Waterloo, one of the country's top universities, offered positions to 38.5 % of the 9,000 applicants (only 1400 actually registered). The Faculty of Environment, in contrast, accepted 79.7 per cent of all applicants in 2011. At the University of Saskatchewan, another fine institution, of the 4720 applicants to first-year university, 3478 received positive admission letters. Using SAT-like examinations in Canada for the primary purpose they are used in the U.S.A. – to assist with the admission process at highly-competitive entry institutions – is clearly of limited value when large numbers and often a majority of the applicants are being admitted.
Canada's small number of elite and prestigious universities, however, would do the nation a great favour by injecting an additional level of challenge into the university admissions process. While a nation-wide SAT-like test is not going to happen in Canada, a consortium of top universities could raise the academic bar by requiring applicants to sit through tests of core skills (writing, reading, mathematics and, could you imagine, world affairs). Such tests would help to ensure that entering students have the abilities necessary for success at university. The additional challenge would also test their sincerity and commitment to advanced study at the highest level in Canada.
Canada is an egalitarian nation, not given (outside of competitive sports and the fine and performing arts) to demanding the best from our young people. Our university admission system reflects this, just as the reliance on high-school grades makes for an efficient and inexpensive means of making admission decisions. An extra dose of excellence, established by the country's top universities and already in place for selective programs, would serve both the students and the institutions that take extra care to select those students who are most likely to succeed. We shy away from excellence in this country too often. Admissions tests to the best universities in Canada would be a small step toward re-establishing the value of high academic performance and exceptional ability.
Ken Coates is Canada Research Chair, Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Saskatchewan. W.R. Morrison is Professor Emeritus, University of Northern British Columbia. They are the authors of the forthcoming What to Consider When You Are Considering University.