Scholastic, Arbitrary Test

By the

March 1, 2001

On Friday, Feb. 16, the president of the University of California, Richard C. Atkinson, proposed an end to the UC system’s requirement of SAT scores for admission. Atkinson’s bold move is a commendable attempt to refocus the college admissions process on achievement and to eliminate part of the socio-economic bias inscribed on admissions decisions.

The nascent SAT, first administered in 1901, had the egalitarian purpose of shifting away from a system in which each university had its own entrance exam. The SAT was intended to identify accomplished students from a variety of backgrounds. In the 1930s, however, the SAT was refocused to test not achievement, but aptitude. This move made the SAT more similar to an IQ test than to a test of subject knowledge.

The problem is that the SAT is not a measure of innate aptitude because test-takers can prepare for it. This has led to students and teachers devoting a sizeable chunk of time, money and energy to preparing for one three-hour test that has little value outside of the competition to secure a place at a college or university. Last year, approximately 150,000 students paid over $100 million for SAT test preparation services. In a speech to the American Council on Education in Washington on Feb. 18, Atkinson spoke of visiting a wealthy private school where 12-year-olds were studying verbal analogies with the sole goal of performing well on the SAT. Generally wealthy students from family backgrounds that emphasize higher education put forth the money and the time to study for the SAT. These students have been taught that three hours at a test center can be as important as the grades they earn in high school, and thus they distribute their energies accordingly.

This tunnel vision operates on the flip side of the college admissions process as well. With so much weight given to SAT scores, admissions committees are under pressure to maintain entering classes with high numbers. Colleges hungrily seek applicants with stellar scores, obsessively mailing high PSAT scorers and later admitting candidates who have performed well on what might have been the most important Saturday morning of their lives. This high-scorer manhunt detracts from the creation of a diverse class with real academic potential.
The fact that those who can afford it tend to pay for test-preparation courses, coupled by the reality that well-fundednearly all college preparatory high schools prepare their students for the SAT, negates any “leveling of the playing field” that the SAT may have been constructed to create.

Although it is infinitely more difficult and time consuming, college admissions committees must evaluate applicants holistically. Admissions officers need to take into account students’ backgrounds and academic performance within their specific environmental context, instead of relying on one number that simply cannot be used as a “yardstick” to decontextualize applicants and objectively evaluate their academic potential.

Atkinson’s proposal still requires approval by the faculty senate and the university system’s governing board of regents before proceeding. If approved, the proposal could be put into practice as early as 2003. Atkinson’s revitalizing of the college admissions process will hopefully serve to spearhead a movement in academia away from the antiquated reliance on a single standardized test and toward a fairer, more meaningful method of selecting students.

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