Overemphasis on SAT Sparks UC Proposal to Drop Test Requirement

University Testing

A proposal by University of California (UC) President Richard Atkinson to remove the SAT I requirement for UC applicants has added new fuel to the national debate about the use of test scores in college admissions. In a February 18 speech delivered to the American Council on Education (ACE), President Atkinson highlighted concerns about the limitations of the test and the troubling position it has come to occupy in the admissions process: “Anyone involved in education should be concerned about how overemphasis on the SAT is distorting educational priorities and practices, how the test is perceived by many as unfair, and how it can have a devastating impact on the self-esteem and aspirations of young students.”


Observing a private school class of 12-year-old students studying verbal analogies in preparation for the SAT solidified President Atkinson’s concerns regarding the over-emphasis of the test: “The time involved was not aimed at developing the students’ reading and writing abilities but rather their test-taking skills.” He cited the booming SAT test prep industry, with annual revenues of more than $200 million, as exacerbating this problem and deepening the perception many minority students have that the test is unfair.


If adopted, the proposal will eliminate the SAT I requirement while maintaining the current SAT II criteria pending the development of new standardized tests directly tied to the college preparatory curriculum in high school. This shift reflects Atkinson’s concern that the SAT I is designed to measure inherent “aptitude” or “intelligence” rather than genuine achievement or subject mastery. The SAT II’s, a series of one-hour subject-specific exams, offer a first step toward aligning admissions tests with high school curricula. However, they contain many of the same flaws – being coachable, biased, and a poor predictor of college performance – as the SAT I. Indeed, Bruce Alberts, a UC Biology professor who is President of the National Academy of Sciences, has criticized the SAT II Biology Test as “an extreme example of a test that forces the wrong kind of teaching” (see Examiner, Spring 1998, Fall/Winter 1995-96).


The removal of the SAT I requirement is expected to boost the application and enrollment rates for underrepresented minority students, which were stunted by the 1996 ban on affirmative action put in place by Proposition 209. Reaching a similar conclusion in a 1998 report, the UC Latino Student Eligibility Task Force stated: "Eliminating the SAT requirement would greatly expand Latino student eligibility without compromising the integrity of UC’s ability to select those students who are most likely to succeed in its programs.”


The UC faculty appear largely supportive of the proposal. The Academic Senate is likely to vote on it this fall. The proposal will then go before the UC Regents for final approval, with implementation projected for the entering class of fall 2002.


Given the size and prestige of the University of California system, President Atkinson’s proposal has spurred admissions offices nationwide to reconsider their policies. The College of Wooster, Hamilton College, Northern Illinois University, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst are among the list of schools that have indicated they will review test score requirements in the coming months.


More information on the proposal can be found on the UCOP web site at http://www.ucop.edu/, including material obtained through UC consultation with FairTest.