Ruth Bass: No. 2 pencil may not define college success



We Bobcats need to speak up for Bill Hiss. A recent article in The Eagle carried the headline "The man who killed the SAT essay." It told how a retired MIT writing professor proved that test-takers could easily manipulate the 25-minute essay to get a score that might or might not be deserved.

Without taking any credit away from that professor, we Bobcats -- the official name for students at Bates College in Maine -- should let the world know it was our retired dean of admissions who inflicted a major wound in the side of the entire SAT system some 30 years ago. Les Perelman’s focus on putting the essay out of its misery began in 2005.

It was 1984 when Bates, described by the Christian Science Monitor as "a top-ranked school," announced that SATs, sacred test of potential college success, would be optional for anyone applying to Bates. Bill Hiss, then dean of admissions, led the charge for dropping the SAT requirement, and for Bates applicants, it was gone.

For decades, admissions officers believed in the tests, saw them as the ultimate predictors of success or failure in college. For decades, teenagers manned those No. 2 pencils and sweated out the PSATs, then the SATs. And for years, parents who could afford it hired tutors who may have raised students’ academic knowledge but certainly gave the test takers tricks that would help them "solve" or "beat" the test.

Les Perelman’s research on the required essay was devastating, reducing the value of the writing to absurdity. He figured out that fancy words and how many the kid could put on paper in 25 minutes influenced the scores. Not content, not profound thoughts. He apparently proved his point: The College Board recently announced that the essay would be optional from now on.

In the meantime, Hiss, a 1966 Bates graduate, had followed up on his long-ago decision to make the test optional. For the past 15 years, he has been principal investigator on a SAT research project headed by the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

The results may deal a mortal blow to the test, at least in its present form. Following 123,000 students at 33 colleges and universities, Hiss concluded that the difference in college grades and graduation rates for SAT-takers and non-takers was statistically almost non-existent. So, the promise of the test -- that it can identify the most promising students -- turns out to be no promise at all.

Other fallout comes out in the Hiss investigation. Those who don’t submit SAT scores where it’s optional tend to fall into specific groups: first in their families to attend college, members of a minority, students with what’s called learning differences, women, Pell Grant recipients. That appears to mean that requiring an SAT score can be an invisible form of discrimination.

Every year high school students who are named National Merit Scholars are publicly recognized. But it’s PSAT scores that determine who those scholars are. If a kid can’t afford to take them or doesn’t do well on them, they have no chance at those scholarships.

The fact that takers and non-takers end up pretty equal in terms of academic achievement and graduation is major. But the invisible discrimination must have been of particular interest to Bill Hiss. Founded without fraternities or sororities, Bates admitted blacks and women in the 19th century and still insists that campus organizations be open to all students. Discrimination is not part of its heritage.

As the Bates Magazine put it in 1985, "The faculty realized that Bates should be seen first-hand," not judged by the median test scores published in guidebooks. Those scores, for instance, don’t tell you that everyone says, "hello" along the campus sidewalks. It was true in the 1950s; it’s apparently still true. These Bobcats are smart, friendly and need no No. 2 pencils.

Ruth Bass and her daughters are Bates College graduates. Her web site is


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions