As the new school year approaches in the United States, millions of American students will prepare for and fret over the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the SAT, which has long been a key requirement for college admission. There has been a contentious debate over the SAT and other standardized tests, but now more than 700 colleges and universities in the United States no longer require applicants to submit standardized test scores. From VOA's New York Bureau, Elizabeth Giegerich has the details.

The SAT is a three hour and forty-five minute standardized test comprised of three sections: math, reading and writing. Each year, over two million students take the test. The College Board, which administers the test, says the SAT is designed to measure critical thinking, mathematical reasoning, and the writing skills that students need to do college-level work.

While the SAT is unquestionably the most prevalent test, there is another, the ACT, which has become increasingly popular - 1.2 million high school students take it each year.

In recent years, standardized testing has become controversial, which has led some schools to make significant changes. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, also known as FairTest, leads a movement to end the use of standardized test scores in the college admissions process. Robert Schaeffer, the public education director of FairTest, explains his organization's stance, particularly on the SAT.

"The SAT has been shown by independent research to be biased, a weak predictor of how students will do in college, susceptible to coaching and not useful in the college admissions process," he said.

The College Board, which declined an interview, sent the following statement to Voice of America:

"There are 25,000 high schools in the United States. As a national standard in the selection process, the SAT helps colleges make informed decisions about applications from students, who are from widely divergent academic backgrounds. While the College Board has always said the best predictor of college performance is the combination of high school grades and standardized admissions test scores, the fact is that grade inflation is an increasingly noticeable issue, making it more important than ever to also have a standardized admissions test score."

Today, more than 700 U.S. institutions of higher education do not require standardized test scores for admission. But some, such as Holy Cross College in Massachusetts, give applicants the option of submitting their scores or not. Ann McDermott, director of admissions at Holy Cross, explains how the optional policy works.

"The students can opt to tell us to use the testing or not and so if they say 'do,' fine, we have that. If they say 'don't,' we completely ignore it," she said. "But it has every one completely focused on the transcripts, the recommendations, essays, interviews, things like that."

Critics of standardized testing say that students from high-income families have the resources to pay for extensive SAT preparation courses and tutoring, giving them an advantage over low-income students.

Critics also believe that standardized tests add stress to teenage lives and take time away from academic and social activities that may be more important than studying for the SAT. These concerns, Ann McDermott says, influenced Holy Cross's decision to make standardized tests optional.

"In the effort to make admissions less stressful, try to make it a little more open, we felt that we didn't want to play the game of testing preparation and all that so we just decided that it was a better reflection of what we valued in our admissions process," she said.

McDermott says it would be difficult for large institutions to eliminate standardized tests because bigger schools receive more applications and generally have fewer admissions resources than smaller schools.

Bates College in Maine, a small college with less than 2,000 students, eliminated the SAT requirement more than 20 years ago. Bates administrator, Wiley Mitchell, has found the policy a success.

"I would say it's worked very well," he said. "There's been almost no difference between the graduation rates, for example, of students who gave us their scores or who did not submit them. There's been almost - just a negligible difference in their grade point averages."

Lafayette, a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, adopted an SAT optional policy in 1995. Five years later the school decided to reinstate a standardized test requirement. Carol Rowlands, director of admissions at Lafayette, explains why.

"Even though high school grade point average and curricular selection for us is a very strong indicator of first year student performance at Lafayette, we found that by also having the ability to view standardized testing, that enhanced our ability to predict first year student achievement," she said. "More information is better."

Sarah Lawrence College, a small liberal arts school in New York, does not accept any standardized test scores at all except the TOEFL, the Test of English as a Foreign Language, from international applicants. Steven Schierloh, dean of admissions at Sarah Lawrence, explains how both national and international applicants are evaluated at his school.

"We use the same rubric, the same structure, to evaluate all students both domestically and internationally and, again, place a large emphasis on academic preparation, nature of the curriculum, choice of classes, rigor, how students have done in those courses, as well as several papers," he said.

Schaeffer of Fairtest and administrators at colleges where standardized tests are optional all emphasize the importance of demonstrated English language skills, especially when test scores are absent. Schaeffer says that international students are a special category.

"What we encourage students to do is to contact the college directly for any special rules they may have that apply to international students," he said.

The college admissions process remains a source of stress in the lives of many young people, and their parents. Today, 700 U.S. colleges are trying to reduce the stress by eliminating standardized tests. This trend may continue, but don't put away your pencils just yet. Most educational institutions in the United States continue to require and depend on standardized test scores to make admissions decisions.