In the eye of the storm: SAT faces scrutiny from many

by Sabrina Peric | 2/13/02 6:00am

It's the test that determines the next stage of your life. The test that can either make or destroy your dreams. Or is it?

For years, students and educators alike have debated the merits and accuracy of the SAT. Long considered the centerpiece of college admissions, the SAT, owned by the College Board, has faced severe criticism about its viability, particularly in the past year.

The University of California chipped further away at the legitimacy of the SAT with its recommendation last month to not consider the aptitude test in admissions. The California system has 130,000 undergraduates and is the College Board's biggest customer.

The College Board and the Educational Testing Service, which writes the test, are highly dependent on the SAT for their livelihood. Approximately 1.3 million high school seniors take the exam every year, and more than half take it twice, yielding an annual revenue of over $200 million.

"[The College Board] has agreed to work with the University of California in devising a new test," Chiara Coletti, vice-president of communications and public affairs at the College Board, told The Dartmouth. "The University of California is a prestigious system and we really want to take our members' needs into consideration."

A new test will most likely be implemented by 2006, "and we think that's very doable," Coletti said.

The biggest critiques mounted against the SAT by University of California president Richard Atkinson echo those of educators across the nation: that the test is too much of a distraction for high school students and that it further handicaps disadvantaged students, especially minorities.

But the SAT was not always the subject of intense criticism.

Begun in 1926, the SAT did not become widely used until the late 1940s and 1950s, thanks mostly to James Conant, then-president of Harvard. Conant believed that the SAT, with its multiple-choice questions and systematic scoring, would equalize access to the nation's elite colleges and universities.

Advocating the use of aptitude tests, as opposed to subject-based exams which Conant considered more biased, Conant thought the SAT would allow admissions offices to open their doors to students outside the East Coast's elite boarding schools and allow them to gauge student abilities against a single measure.

In his 1999 book "The Big Test: The Secret History of American Meritocracy," Nicholas Lemann shows that though the founders of the test wanted to replace family background with scholastic aptitude as the key factor of college admission, "their creation looks very much like what it was intended to replace."

Lemann notes that countless studies have shown that students' average SAT scores rise proportionately with their parents' income, thereby reinforcing existing social class differences.

During this past 2000-2001 school year, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that white students scored an average of 1060 on the test, compared with 859 for African-Americans and 925 for Hispanic students. These gaps have remained consistent over the past ten years despite all of the efforts to narrow them by high schools and universities across the country.

The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education also reported that African-Americans, who account for ten percent of all test-takers, make up only 0.7 percent of the students nationwide who score above 750 in the math portion, and 1.4 percent of those scoring over 750 in the verbal section.

Seeking a solution to this discrepancy, many elite colleges and state systems have adopted affirmative action policies. But recent court rulings in such large states as Texas and California have restricted consideration of race and ethnic background in admission.

That has left many educators in a quandary.

"Clearly, there is a growing sense of concern around the country that without affirmative action to mitigate the effects of the SATs, we're forced to look at the consequences of the SATs more directly," Raymond Paredes, vice-chancellor for academic affairs at the University of California at Los Angeles said.

That is why the University of California moved to eliminate consideration of the SAT.

But some smaller institutions have had such a policy for decades.

Bates College has given applicants the option of not taking standardized tests for 17 years. The Bates approach to admissions is one of multiple-intelligences, putting more emphasis on actual achievement, imagination, creativity and hard work, according to the college.

"When [students'] grades and courses, extracurricular and community commitments, recommendations, and writing all are strong, the testing may be not only unhelpful, but truly misleading when we try to assess their academic potential," said William Hiss, former dean of admissions and financial aid at Bates.

Since instituting the optional testing policy, Bates has tracked the grade point averages and graduation rates of their students and found no significant difference between students who submitted test scores and those who did not.

Not only that, but Bates also found that the students who applied without testing were those who tend to fare comparatively less well on standardized tests -- women, minorities, rural and working class students, immigrants and students with learning disabilities.

What makes Bate's holistic approach to admissions possible is that it accepts only 400 to 500 students each year, and reads less than 2,000 applications in that time. At large institutions, the SAT is often a big component in the formulas that help admissions officers sort through tens of thousands of applications because the offices are chronically understaffed.

"Other colleges and universities have indicated that they want to stay with what they have, with the SAT I," the College Board's Coletti affirmed. "At highly selective schools, they require both the SAT I and SAT II because it gives them a much fuller picture of a candidate's capabilities."

But Jan Scheiner, a visiting assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth, said the SAT is helpful only in limited circumstances.

"[The SAT] is more helpful in sorting out kids at the upper end of the distribution. For very bright kids applying to highly selective schools, the SAT has good incremental validity," she said. "The SAT makes certain assumptions about the educational experiences of the person taking the test."

However, some say one of the advantages of such a widely used test is that it is closely monitored and constantly being rewritten.

The Educational Testing Service, which writes the test, goes to extensive lengths in writing the questions for the test. The whole process--from the conception of a question to its appearance on an exam--takes at least eighteen months to two years.

"[The SATs] have been around since 1926, people work hard to update the test items and to evaluate the for gender fairness, for example," Scheiner said.

The SAT may remain a mainstay of college admissions simply because there is no accepted alternative. The SAT II subject tests are often open to the same criticism as the SAT I -- mainly, that they do not account for people coming from non-traditional backgrounds.

State-based exams also also be virtually impossible for universities to use because they vary so much from one state to the next.

A study released by the U.S Department of Education in 1999 reported that the rigor of a student's high-school curriculum, not standardized exams, is the best predictor of whether or not a student will graduate from college than test scores.

"The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior," Scheiner said.

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