By Schrag, Peter
The American Prospect , Vol. 13, No. 8
WHEREVER HE WENT IN THE PAST YEAR, University of California President Richard Atkinson was handing out verbal analogies questions: DRAPERY is to FABRIC as (pick one) fireplace is to wood; curtain to stage; shutter to light; sieve to liquid; window to glass.
The questions come from the SAT I exam that 1.3 million college applicants take every year. The questions aren't all that tough, but Atkinson believes they show that the test is a capricious exercise that adds little information to what other tests and grades show about a student's academic capabilities. At the same time, it discriminates against poor and minority students, and distracts attention from the core academic subjects that high-school students should focus on. "If you know the definition of those words," he said, "the reasoning is trivial." So he's been working hard to change UC admissions policies to rely on a new, still-to-be-designed test instead of the SAT I--and to persuade other universities to do the same. "If we do it," he said, "other institutions will come along."
Atkinson's message is being heard. In March, a little more than a year after he publicly announced his intentions, the College Board, which designs and manages the SAT tests, announced plans to revise the SAT I. Among the contemplated changes: adding a writing section, switching to math problems based less on aptitude and more on specific skills learned in advanced high-school math courses, and de-emphasizing or perhaps eliminating the analogies. Board President Gaston Caperton acknowledged that the revisions are being prompted by Atkinson's challenge.
But beyond the matter of the SAT, Atkinson has been struggling with a larger and more vexing issue in American higher education: how to square the demanding academic standards of a selective public university with its democratic mission to serve all citizens--"to honor both the ideal of merit," he said, "and the ideal of broad educational opportunity." Particularly in a state like California, where whites are now just another minority and where, in another generation, Hispanics will become an absolute majority, the answers will play a crucial role in determining just what kind of society is to emerge.
Atkinson, cognitive psychologist, former director of the National Science Foundation, and former chancellor at UC's San Diego campus, is well aware of the obstacles to fundamental reform.
"He's been stewing about the SAT for years," one of his senior aides said. "He started reading the test questions and saying, `Hey, this is a lousy test.' And he's probably the only guy who could have taken this on. He has the stature, the professional background, and [at the age of 73], he's getting ready to retire."
He's also possessed of a quiet passion that's easy to miss. In an era when university presidents spend much of their time raising money, and are heard less and less on major policy issues, Atkinson's push to end the use of the SAT I, to broaden the pool of university applicants, and to "move away from admission processes that use narrowly defined quantitative formulas [mostly grades and test scores[ and instead adopt procedures that look at applicants in a comprehensive, holistic way," has put him as close as anyone in this era to the ranks of educational statesmen.
BY NOW PEOPLE IN THE FIELD UNDERSTAND THE CLOSE connection between affirmative action and the grades-plus-test-score formulas that most selective universities rely on in admissions, even when it's denied. Race-based affirmative action, often by means of an equally inflexible formula, is designed to offset the effects of test scores on black and Latino applicants who, on average, test lower than whites and Asians. (For two decades or more, until well into the 1990s, places like UC Berkeley, the University of Texas, and the University of Michigan added extra points to the scores of black and Latino applicants. …