Another “New, Improved” SAT?

University Testing

For the second time in less than a decade, the College Board is launching a much-ballyhooed overhaul of its flagship product, the SAT-I admissions exam. The move comes barely eight years after introduction of a heavily promoted set of changes which dropped the name “Scholastic Assessment Test” in favor of the simple initialization, replaced antonyms on the Verbal section with longer “Reading Comprehension” items, and made several other, largely cosmetic revisions.

Though a formal decision will not be made until early this summer, College Board leaders are now contemplating eliminating analogy questions, adding even more multiple-choice “Critical Reading” items, expanding the scope of the Math portion of the exam to include advanced algebra, and including a timed, scored essay. The test’s manufacturers claim all these potential modifications are designed to keep pace with changes in educational needs by making the exam more “achievement” oriented.

Those who have followed the debate, however, know the Board is actually responding to serious threats to its multi-million dollar testing business. Last year, University of California President Richard Atkinson proposed to drop the SAT-I at the seven undergraduate campuses he oversees (see story, P. 1). A growing number of colleges — now close to 400 — do not require many of their applicants to submit test scores before being admitted, a policy nearly all report simultaneously enhances diversity and academic quality (see Examiner, Spring 2001). The list of “test score optional admissions” schools includes huge public systems, such as the University of Texas which automatically accepts all students graduating in the top ten percent of their high schools (see Examiner, Winter 2000-2001), as well as many selective private colleges.

“Test score optional” colleges know the distinction between “aptitude” and “achievement” exams is largely semantic, a matter of marketing slogans, not content or purpose. No matter how promoted, no mass-administered three-hour test has ever been able to measure habits of mind such as critical thinking, motivation, creativity, perseverance or judgement, that are vitally important in college and life. Indeed, the SAT-I, SAT-II Subject Tests (formerly “Achievement Tests”), and the ACT (which bills itself as “curriculum based”) have many similarities (see new FairTest factsheet, p. 2).

All existing undergraduate admissions tests, as well as those on the drawing boards, quiz students on a short list of topics, far narrower than the actual high school or college curriculum. It’s not surprising, then, that no exam has ever been able to predict more than one-fourth of the difference in first-year college performance. Despite the wide variation among applicants’ schools and courses, their high school grades are a better predictor of how they will do in college than any test.

In addition, every known test has proven extremely susceptible to coaching. That means students from affluent families can “buy” a leg up that is unavailable to children from less wealthy homes. The result, as annual SAT and ACT score charts regularly demonstrate (see Examiner, Fall 2001), is that reliance on test scores of any type in admission tilts the playing field against low-income and minority applicants.

Incorporating a short essay written in a high-pressure setting into the SAT-I Verbal score could increase the exam’s biases against those whose first language is not standard English. Such an exercise would not, however, accurately assess a student’s ability to research and write the kinds of papers required in college. Increasing the emphasis on so-called “Critical Reading” items plays into the hands of test preparation companies, which have long-taught their paying clients how to answer those questions correctly without bothering to read through the often tedious passages.

The real issue should not be whether a college uses the “new, improved” SAT, last year’s model, the competitor’s ACT test, or some state high school graduation exam. FairTest and other true reformers will continue to ask why any standardized test is still required for college admissions.

Read also FairTest's letter to the University of California Regents, fact sheet, and accompanying press release.