Achievement versus Aptitude in College Admissions: Students Should Be Selected on the Basis of Their Demonstrated Success in Learning, Not Some Ill-Defined Notion of Aptitude

By Atkinson, Richard C. | Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Achievement versus Aptitude in College Admissions: Students Should Be Selected on the Basis of Their Demonstrated Success in Learning, Not Some Ill-Defined Notion of Aptitude


Atkinson, Richard C., Issues in Science and Technology


Every year, more than a million high school students stake their futures on the nation's most widely used admissions test, the SAT I. Long viewed as the gold standard for ensuring student quality, the SAT I has also been considered a great equalizer in U.S. higher education. Unlike achievement tests such as the SAT II, which assess mastery of specific subjects, the SAT I is an aptitude test that focuses on measuring verbal and mathematical abilities independent of specific courses or high school curricula. It is therefore a valuable tool, the argument goes, for correcting the effects of grade inflation and the wildly varying quality of U.S. high schools. And it presumably offers a way of identifying talented students who otherwise might not meet traditional admissions criteria, especially high-potential students in low-performing high schools.

In February 2001, at the annual meeting of the American Council on Education (ACE), I delivered an address questioning the conventional wisdom about the SAT I and announced that I had asked the Academic Senate of the University of California (UC) to consider eliminating it as a requirement for admission to UC. I was unprepared for the intense public reaction to my remarks. The day before I was scheduled to deliver them, I went to the lobby of my hotel to get a copy of the Washington Post. I was astounded to find myself and excerpts from the speech on the front page; an early version had been leaked to the press. To my further astonishment, an even more detailed story appeared on the front page of the New York Times.

And that was only the beginning. In the months since my address, I have heard from hundreds of college and university presidents, CEOs, alumni, superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, students, and many others from all walks of life. Television programs, newspaper editorials, and magazine articles have presented arguments pro and con. I was most struck by the Time magazine article that had a picture of President Bush and me side by side. The headline read, "What do these two men have in common?" Those who have speculated that the answer is that we had the same SAT scores are wrong. I did not take the SAT. I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, and at that time the university was adamantly opposed to the concept of aptitude tests and used achievement tests in its admissions process. Time was simply observing that we share an interest in testing.

It came as no surprise that my proposal to take a hard look at the role and purpose of the SAT I and standardized tests in general attracted the attention of educators, admissions officers, and testing experts. I have been impressed and pleased by the many researchers, professors, and psychometricians who have shared with me their findings and experience regarding the SAT. But I was also surprised at the number of letters I received from people who had no professional connection with higher education. I heard from a young woman--an honors graduate of UC Berkeley with an advanced degree from Princeton--who had been questioned about her 10-year-old SAT scores in a job interview; an attorney who, despite decades of success, still remembers the sting of a less-than-brilliant SAT score; an engineer who excelled on the SAT but found it bore no relation to the demands of college and his profession; a science student who scored poorly on the SAT and was not admitted to his college of choice but was elected to the Nat ional Academy of Sciences in later years. Clearly, the SAT strikes a deep chord in the national psyche.

The second surprise in the months after my speech was the degree of confusion about what I proposed and why I proposed it. For example, some people assumed I wanted to eliminate the SAT I as an end run around Proposition 209, the 1996 California law banning affirmative action. That was not my purpose; my opposition to the SAT I predates Proposition 209 by many years. …

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