SAT--A Failing Test

By Sacks, Peter | The Nation, April 2, 2001 | Go to article overview

SAT--A Failing Test


Sacks, Peter, The Nation


Educators have long known the rap sheet on the SAT, the college entrance exam that millions of young people have taken as a rite of passage for some seventy-five years. Since its inception, the SAT has become among the most scrutinized and controversial of standardized tests. And yet, the exam--and the mental testing culture that has sustained it in the United States--has been remarkably impervious to the attacks on it over the years.

Recently, however, the SAT suffered a body blow when the president of the University of California system proposed dumping the exam. Don't expect colleges and universities to defect from the SAT en masse--it's too deeply entrenched for that. But in announcing his far-reaching proposal in February, UC president Richard Atkinson legitimized open discussion of a heretofore taboo subject for large and selective universities: whether they (and society) would be better off without the test.

Atkinson, an eminent cognitive psychologist, knows well the list of particulars against the exam in question, the so-called SAT I "reasoning test." As the progeny of the first intelligence test commercialized in the United States, the SAT has proven to be a weak predictor of a student's actual performance in the first year of college; after that, its usefulness vanishes completely. Moreover, the SAT has proven to be a vicious sorter of young people by class and race, and even gender--and has served to sustain the very upper-middle-class privilege that many of the exam's supporters claim to oppose. The latest figures from the College Board, the SAT's sponsor, show that a test taker can expect an extra shot of fifteen to fifty points on his or her total SAT I score for every $10,000 that Mom and Dad bring home. Call it the Volvo Effect: a boost that peaks out at the highest levels of family income. Being white, on average, confers an extra 200-point advantage over a black test-taker. Atkinson hopes that replacing the SAT I with the SAT II subject tests will lessen such disparities and more accurately reflect what students study in high school. In fact, scores on both exams are powerfully correlated with each other, and UC's own data show that the SAT II also sorts harshly by class, race and gender. More helpful, Atkinson intends to revamp the entire UC admissions process by requiring campuses to evaluate applicants more comprehensively than under the old numerical formulas, judging a high school student's achievements in light of his or her social and economic circumstances.

The SAT's shortcomings have become especially vivid in recent years, as courts, voters and policy-makers in several states, including the UC Board of Regents in 1995, have ordered public universities to dismantle their affirmative action programs. Post-affirmative action, UC's most selective campuses have seen freshman acceptance rates wane for blacks and Hispanics. …

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