Why the SAT is Wrong for Indonesian Students


As a former Senior High Principal in Jakarta, I was a big fan of the SAT. I worked hard to have our school administer the PSAT and then become an SAT Test Center so we could give the test to all of our Year 12 students. Of course, not all of the students needed it as they weren’t all planning on attending a university that required a standardized test. But, I felt it was one way we could evaluate the learning within our school from Year 10 to Year 12.

However, the results were a bit surprising. Our students had done better in comparing raw scores with the PSAT,  but their percentiles (comparing them to other SAT test takers) were significantly lower so, I wondered how that could be. Our teachers were all working hard and most of our students worked hard in their high school classes. I knew something was wrong when even our top students went in the wrong direction from the PSAT to the SAT.

I spent the next month researching the differences between the PSAT and the SAT.  The differences are significant. Since then I have continued to learn more about the SAT itself and I now believe that it is the wrong test for most Indonesians to take in 2015. Why do I say 2015? The creators of the exams have recognized the need to update the SAT, in part because they have been losing out to the competition (the ACT). So, in 2016 they will introduce the New SAT which will be much more like the current ACT exam. So to be clear, the current version of the SAT is wrong for Indonesian students, not the version coming in 2016.

Why am I so unhappy with the SAT that is still being used? First of all, I know as a US university counselor that universities need some way of measuring and comparing students from California and Kalimantan. But for admissions decisions, your high school grades (transcript) and especially IB and AP scores, are much more important. Students and parents need to keep that in mind so they don’t devote every Saturday to SAT preparation. Here are my complaints about the 2015 SAT.

SAT Math. My former students and probably most Indonesian students do very well on this section and they should! The math knowledge required for this part of the test is learned in 7th, 8th and 9th grades. Many students have to review SMP Math to prepare for the SAT. So, we might feel good about scoring in the 95th percentile or higher but the sad truth is that this limits Indonesians from demonstrating what they can really do. Indonesian students can handle much more challenging questions than those that appear on the SAT. And universities won’t see that in the SAT score.

Critical Reading. These are random multiple choice questions about excerpts from obscure texts. As a former English teacher, I know that Indonesians read English texts slower than native-speakers. Reading slower helps with deeper comprehension but not for the SAT. The time restraints are set in such a way that students have to read and answer the questions very quickly. This is not a fair measurement for Indonesian students.

Writing. This section is called “Writing” but actually it is testing about 20 different English grammar/usage points. Knowing these specific elements gets translated into a score for the Writing component of the SAT along with an essay. Again, it is an unfair measure for English-language learners.

The Essay. This is the section I dislike the most. This makes up 30% of the Writing score. It is looked at by two different readers who score it on a scale of 1-6 (reportedly spending about 1 minute per essay). These two scores are added to give a student a score between 2-12. Indonesian students do need to be able to write essays but there is not enough time to consider the complicated prompt, plan a response and write well, especially with what the College Board states they want to see: ” Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.”

So to summarize, my advice is to look at taking the ACT in 2015 or try both the ACT and the New SAT in 2016. In my next article, I will explain why the ACT might be a better choice for most Indonesians and how it differs from the SAT. Keep in mind that every school that accepts the SAT also accepts the ACT which is why more American students chose to take the ACT last year.


Photo by Jack Hynes, Creative Commons



  1. I agree. I only score 2090 (800 M/ 560 CR/730 W/12 E) on SAT but a 33 on ACT, and these already brought me to get in two my EA schools.


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