WHAT DOES SAT STAND FOR?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Here's a question you won't find on the SAT: What does SAT stand for? A) Scholastic Aptitude Test. B) Scholastic Assessment Test. C) Slimy and Atrocious Torture. D) Nothing.

If you answered C, you might have read a book by high-schoolers called Up Your Score: The Underground Guide to the SAT. But the real answer, surprisingly, is D.

Yes, the test used to be called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, but like so much about the SAT, even the name was causing controversy: some felt that the SAT measured only an aptitude for taking aptitude tests. Plus, the test's sponsors found that some students viewed aptitude as a genetic quality, casting the SAT as a kind of annual experiment in eugenics. "That was a misconception," says Janice Gams, spokeswoman for the College Board, an association of 3,200 high schools and colleges that oversees the exam. Hence the test is now simply called SAT.

But these days it's facing more than just an identity crisis. Rarely have those who revile the exam--including many of the 1 million students who take it each year--had so much to celebrate: because of new state prohibitions against affirmative action, public universities in California and Texas are struggling to find ways to remain racially diverse. One solution: scrap SATs, since minorities score worse, on average, than whites. The University of California is considering a proposal by its Latino Eligibility Task Force to eliminate SATs from admissions decisions in order to boost Latino enrollment. Public universities in Texas have already dropped standardized tests for many applicants in order to comply with a state law passed earlier this year automatically admitting those who finish in the top 10% of their high school--no questions asked, no SATs required.

In addition, a small but growing number of liberal-arts colleges have made test scores optional, in part because they want to draw minorities. Schools such as Connecticut College in New London; Muhlenberg in Allentown, Pa.; and Franklin & Marshall in Lancaster, Pa., have followed the lead of Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, which made scores optional in 1989 and has studies saying that quality hasn't suffered as a result.

Prominent members of the liberal intelligentsia are launching new attacks on the SAT, questioning its basic assumption that intelligence can be measured digitally. Nicholas Lemann, who is finishing a book delineating the rise of the American "meritocracy," argues that the SAT-focused admissions system magnifies inequalities in public schools by keeping low scorers from prominent careers; he also says it fails to evaluate a student's character. "Numerical measurement isn't the answer to everything in life," Lemann says. Law professor Lani Guinier co-authored a California Law Review article last year arguing that because standardized tests don't anticipate success in school very well, admissions officers should pay less attention to them.

The debate they are renewing stretches back decades ("ages and ages," sighs chief College Board researcher Howard Everson). Some point out that high school grades are a better predictor of college success than SATs. Others argue that the test favors not just whites but boys. An entire advocacy group called FairTest exists almost solely to generate press releases that chip away at the SAT's encrusted position in American education.

Still, there are no real alternatives to the SAT and its kid brother, the ACT. (Produced by an Iowa City testing company and formerly called the American College Testing Assessment, the ACT is almost as widely taken as the SAT but considered less prestigious.) Despite the attacks, the percentage of four-year colleges requiring either test has actually increased since 1990, from 77% to 82%. Most admissions officers say the tests can be a useful guard against grade inflation; according to the College Board, 37% of students report getting A's today, up from 28% 10 years ago.

But few understand the advantages of avoiding an SAT verdict better than Mark Meadows and Lien Le. Meadows says he can't remember exactly how he fared on the test, but he knows it wasn't a score that would vault him from a middle-class life in Santa Rosa, Calif., to Harvard. His mother, a nurse, had home-schooled him for several years, and his math skills were weak. He graduated from high school with a 3.6 GPA and went to tiny Pacific Union College. But he thought he needed a bigger name on his graduate-school applications; he applied to Bates because he knew it wouldn't ask for scores. Now a popular senior, Meadows earns A's and B's, serves as a mentor to an eight-year-old boy and holds down a job in a bookstore. College officials call him "a real star."

For her part, Le immigrated empty-handed from Vietnam in 1991 and yet managed to become valedictorian of her Portland, Maine, high school. But her limited grasp of English made the SATs a horror: she scored 400 on the verbal portion (800 is perfect). At Bates she has a 3.6 GPA and interns at a hospital. "The fact that I've done well here shows that SAT scores don't affect how well a person can do," she says.

Roiling beneath the surface of the ocean of numbers is the issue of race. Why do minorities score worse? Manuel Gomez, a member of the Latino Eligibility Task Force, says suburban kids can often afford pricey coaching services that many minorities can't. Moreover, immigrants like Le--and many of California's Latinos--often struggle on the verbal part.

The College Board's Everson counters that coaching helps the average student get only about three extra questions right. The board says Latinos and blacks do worse because socioeconomic disadvantages (bad urban schools, fewer college-educated parents) leave them ill prepared. And Everson argues that in the end, dropping the SAT wouldn't necessarily help the UC system admit more Latinos, since more students of all races will become eligible for admission under a grades-only policy.

So far, he doesn't need to worry, at least not about California. The UC task force's no-SAT plan has little chance of becoming policy: it is widely opposed, not only by Republican Governor Pete Wilson but also by the moderate Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Examiner. They all contend that the proposal could lower standards.

But Texas' decision effectively to drop tests may be the first indication that they are vulnerable in the long run. Legislators there passed the top-10% law in May as a way of countering the effects of a court decision outlawing affirmative action at universities. They hope the new law will reverse the sudden drop in minority enrollment after the ruling by drawing diligent students from heavily minority schools. The Texas law was politically smarter than the California plan, since it cast reform as a way of encouraging students to get better grades; that's why G.O.P. Governor George W. Bush happily signed it. California's anti-SAT effort is doomed unless it is pitched the same way.

If the Supreme Court bans affirmative action altogether, every Governor will have to figure out how to avoid embarrassments like this fall's incoming class at UT-Austin's law school, which has just four black students (down from 31 last year) out of 475. As long as minorities fare worse than whites on SATs and ACTs, eliminating the tests will look like an easy--read cost-free and legal--way out.