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Jewish World Review March 19, 2001 / 24 Adar 5761

Philip Terzian

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Consumer Reports

Scoring the SAT -- IF you doubt that the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., is feeling besieged these days, try asking them what "SAT" stands for. It's not easy getting an answer.

When the ETS first designed the SAT several decades ago, it stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test. There was a desire among public-spirited educators -- Notably Harvard's president, chemist James Bryant Conant -- that the nation's elite institutions of higher learning attract more students on the basis of potential and intelligence than wealth or ancestry. The SAT was intended to identify students who would thrive in college, and distinguish themselves in later life, regardless of their family background or ability to pay.

The notion of meritocracy, based on ability and perseverance, has an obvious appeal in egalitarian America.

But in recent years, the SAT has lost a lot of its lustre. For some time there have been allegations that the tests are "culturally biased," which may well be true for college applicants who cannot speak English. And a few years ago writer Nicholas Lemann, who disapproves of intelligence tests in general, wrote a book-length condemnation of the SAT, based largely on the oddball anti-meritocracy views of his mentor, Washington Monthly editor Charles Peters. Fearful that concepts such as "aptitude" might offend the likes of Jesse Jackson or Nicholas Lemann, the word was dropped from the name of the test, and "SAT" became a mere acronym, standing for nothing specific, like Harry Truman's famous middle initial.

Now the SAT is in real jeopardy. Richard Atkinson, the psychologist-president of the University of California, believes that too much emphasis is placed in schools, beginning in the earliest grades, on preparation for the SAT, and he has called n the UC system to drop the test as a requirement for admission. (It is already optional at certain selective institutions, such as Mount Holyoke.) But if Atkinson's proposal should be adopted in California, it is likely that other big land-grant systems around the country would follow, as well as private schools like Mount Holyoke, tolling the death knell for the SAT.

Is this good or bad news? Well, one of Atkinson's concerns is that black applications to the University of California have fallen in recent years, which he ascribes to lower SAT scores among blacks in comparison to other racial/ethnic groups. It is likely that making the SAT optional would raise the number of black applicants to UC; but how well those students perform after admission has little to do with the SAT. And in that sense, it is worth noting that, just as the big test has come under fire from President Atkinson, President George W. Bush has called for more school testing, on an annual basis, in the cities and states.

In fact, the two proposals may well be complementary. For while it is true that ambitious students spend an inordinate amount of time preparing for a decidedly quirky intelligence test, the most persuasive argument against the SAT is that it largely ignores what students have learned (the basic purpose of schooling) in favor of measuring how they think. President Bush, in his reform proposals, has suggested that school systems should be held accountable for imparting knowledge -- who was Chaucer? what's a molecule? who won the Battle of Gettysburg? -- not just training their brighter students in the fine art of finessing verbal analogies.

This is a struggle that is already being fought on the local level. In the mid-1990s in Virginia, for example, then-Gov. George Allen mandated periodic Standards of Learning (SOL) examinations, which demand that students acquire a certain body of knowledge, and that schools and teachers be evaluated on the success of their students in the SOLs. Critics omplain that this reduces schools to crammers filling their students with "rote learning," but these are the same people who profess to be horrified by how little students actually know when they reach college age.

And in truth, Atkinson is not exactly calling for the abolition of the SAT, but for emphasis, instead, on the achievement tests that the ETS administers as well. This will put a greater burden on college admissions officers, but that might not be such a bad idea. Schools are different, some students do better on standardized tests than others, and it is always difficult to choose among highly qualified applicants or identify diamonds in the rough. But the idea that there ever was a magic bullet in the academic arsenal is illusory. The SAT is not infallible, and the institutions that rely on its clairvoyant powers are only helping students who have figured out how to game the SAT.

As with all reforms in history, the Scholastic Aptitude Test (or whatever they call it) is now a disproportionate element of a system that needs to be reformed -- again.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal