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Should SATs Matter?

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WILLIAM MERCER MCLEOD FOR TIME

The campus of the University of California at Berkeley

For the past two weeks, Time has been asking famous and accomplished people to tell us their SAT scores. Most of them declined — which is a little strange, since the big bad test couldn't possibly hurt Alan Greenspan or Oprah Winfrey. But the SAT occupies a central place in the American psyche, lying at the terrifying intersection of ability, class and pride. As TV's Conan O'Brien put it, "It has taken 20 years to forget the trauma of that damned test, and looking up my scores would be like going back to Vietnam."

The test's prominence ensures that shouting matches will erupt over it regularly. Usually one side says the SAT should die because it's racist; the other says it should flourish because it maintains standards. Their arguments are important but had started to seem pointless, since the number of SAT takers has increased virtually every year since Pearl Harbor.

Then, in a Feb. 18 speech to his fellow college presidents, the psychologist who runs the University of California suggested something radical: Scrap the thing. Richard Atkinson says the test hurls kids into months of practicing word games and math riddles at the expense of studying chemistry or poetry. He wants to make SAT scores an optional part of the application for all 90,000 kids who want to go to U.C. each year. "The SATs have acquired a mystique that's clearly not warranted," he proclaims. "Who knows what they measure?" Those of us who wanted to stick a No. 2 pencil in our eye while puzzling the meaning of "mendacious" gave a cheer.

Last week U.C.'s faculty and regents started what will be a long, fiery debate over his proposal. Since Atkinson began attacking the test, college administrators across the U.S. have reopened old fights about the SAT and started new ones. President John Peters of Northern Illinois University says the reaction of the hundreds of college officials to the speech was "extremely positive"; he plans to suggest a review of his school's standardized-test requirements at the next faculty meeting. The Georgia board of regents is reviewing admissions criteria, as are the University of Texas, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the College of Wooster in Ohio.

Most universities have no immediate plans to stop asking for SAT scores. But at those schools that were having second thoughts about the test, Atkinson's stance will embolden anti- SAT forces. "It's gutsy," says Florida International University admissions chief Carmen Brown, "and a lot of other places will follow." The College Board, which oversees the SAT, was worried enough after the speech to e-mail colleges a defense of its test.

The board had plenty of reasons to worry before then. The California rumblings come at a precarious time for the SAT. To be sure, it remains a key part of the college-application process. Last year 44% of the kids who graduated from high school took it, up from 41% in 1995. In all, more than 2 million students took the SAT in 2000. The second-biggest admissions test, the act, had 1.8 million takers last year. Published by an Iowa testing company, the act started as a rival to the SAT and focuses more on subject matter than general reasoning. But the act never developed the sat's aura of quality and rigor. Whenever a college suggests dropping its SAT requirement, traditionalists on campus inevitably say doing so would lower standards.

Over the past few years, however, the test's defenders have started to lose ground. About 280 of the nation's 2,083 four-year colleges and universities make the SAT optional for some or all applicants; a handful of prestigious colleges, including Franklin and Marshall and Mount Holyoke, have joined their ranks since the early '90s and say they aren't admitting idiots as a result. Hamilton College is considering making the SAT optional. Countless other schools have de-emphasized the SAT in more subtle ways — continuing to ask for scores but weighing other factors more heavily.

Granted many of the SAT-optional schools sit on utopian campuses in liberal New England villages. But it's getting hard to find an admissions officer anywhere who says an SAT score alone tells you anything important. Deans at prestigious, traditional bastions such as Vanderbilt support the SAT, but some of the test's assumed proponents aren't guarding it against the barbarians. Even conservatives at the Weekly Standard have written about how the SAT has "shaped — and misshaped — modern American life."

But if we drop the SAT, by what means should we allot membership in the nation's Úlite? Of course, plenty of people make movies and play in the major leagues and run companies and write for magazines without high SATs. But good scores sure don't hurt. Besides, don't they measure something valuable — something beyond the diligence it takes to memorize the details of the Franco-Prussian War for a history exam? Much of the debate over the SAT boils down to this: Assuming we can measure innate intelligence, do we want a society that rewards genes? Are we afraid of what kind of society that might be? Or should we instead reward only the achievements of a life — what we do with our gifts, not what we start with?

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