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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

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To answer these questions, you have to understand both how the SAT rose to prominence and how it has fallen into turmoil. Appropriately, the story begins in California. In the two decades after World War II, the College Board struggled to build the reputation of the SAT, which was first used experimentally in 1926. The board desperately wanted the University of California, then the biggest university in the nation, to fully adopt the test. In 1962, as Nicholas Lemann says in his brilliant history, The Big Test, an SAT honcho wrote to his colleagues of the dire consequences if U.C. decided to end its then limited use of the test: "If they drop the SAT, we will lose a great deal more than the revenue; we will suffer a damaging blow to our prestige."

In 1967, its confidence in the value of high school transcripts eroded, U.C. finally started requiring SAT scores from all applicants. From that point, the test grew into a national juggernaut. Within a matter of years, as college attendance skyrocketed, many admissions offices were relying heavily on the standardized SAT scores to help winnow piles of applications.

By the 1970s, when the inevitable backlash began, two arguments emerged. The one that drew more media attention charged that the test was inherently biased against blacks and Latinos, who to this day score worse on average than whites. The other was that SAT scores measure only the ability to take the SAT — a skill that, depending on your ability to pay, you could pick up in a coaching class (a growth industry that in 1999 alone raked in $400 million). Aside from that class inequality, the test's failure to measure anything meaningful also meant that kids were spending a lot of time fretting over pedagogical phantoms at the expense of real learning.

The College Board says the average SAT taker spends only 11 hours preparing — and that coaching on average adds fewer than 40 points to a score. But test prep has become a big part of teen culture in most suburbs. Even the College Board sells its own test-prep material. The Princeton Review's $799-to-$899 SAT classes typically meet weekly for six weeks, and students are expected to practice analogies and memorize vocabulary at home. "There has been a kind of testing mania that's hit us at all levels," says Sylvia Manning, a chancellor of the University of Illinois. It begins as early as middle school, when kids prepare for the Preliminary SAT, whose results are used by some colleges to identify potential matriculants when they are only in 10th grade. By senior year, "kids live and die by what they score on that three-hour test," says Ray Brown, dean of admissions at Texas Christian University. "Or at least they think so."

In fact, most admissions officers — both at Úlite colleges and giant state schools — say they work hard not to put too much emphasis on SATs. They know, says Florida State admissions chief John Barnhill, that "the SAT doesn't measure heart." Although his office generally rejects applicants who score below 900, he remembers a student who was admitted with a 720 — but who had a 3.9 GPA. "We have space for students like that, provided they are in the special support program," he says. "I like the SAT, but I don't love it. I wish I could find something that was a more fair and accurate measure."

The racial gap in test scores is one of the most vexing problems in social science, in part because it opens the door to the whole creepy notion of eugenics. Eugenicists believe that the human species would advance more quickly if it discouraged reproduction among certain groups deemed unfit — say, those that score poorly on aptitude tests. It's worth noting that the SAT was designed by a psychology professor who became a leading member of the eugenics movement before denouncing it later in life.

The racial gap has fluctuated in size but never really declined. Today even blacks whose parents have the same level of education and income as a comparable sample of whites score about 120 points lower on average. Anti-testers often explain the gap by saying most of the test writers are white and import cultural biases into the SAT. But the College Board says SAT questions are always previewed by a large sample of test takers, and any questions that generate racial disparities are tossed out before they appear on SATs that count. "The SAT is probably the most thoroughly researched test in history," says College Board president Gaston Caperton. He attributes the test-score gap to the "different educational opportunities these students have had." Says Donald Stewart, one of Caperton's predecessors and the first African American to hold the job: "Poor kids are getting a lousy education. It's as simple as that."

Not really. Poor kids going to dismal schools doesn't explain why rich black kids score worse on average than white kids. Stanford psychologist Claude Steele has a theory that might explain it. His research shows that even high-achieving African-American pupils may be distracted by a fear that they will confirm the stereotype that blacks don't do well on intelligence tests. Steele has tested his theory by giving an exam to two mixed-race groups of students. One group was told that the exam was a simple problem-solving exercise; the other was told that their scores would show how smart they were. The white kids scored about the same no matter what they were told. The black kids who thought they were taking an intelligence test performed considerably worse than those told the test was no big deal.

That raises the question of whether we should try to test intelligence at all. Lemann, who wrote the history of the SAT, answers no. "You want to measure people on something they've done, not on supposedly innate abilities," he says. "I don't trust the whole idea of innateness." Fine, but what about those cool kids who would rather write concertos or build rockets than cram for a quiz on Grover Cleveland's second term? What about the bright rural Arkansas kid whose school is so screwed up that her grades mean nothing? Lemann says those students could still submit their perfect 1600 SAT score, since the test would simply be optional — although in his perfect world, the SAT would be replaced by other standardized tests that draw from nationally standardized course material.

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