Is This the End for the SAT?

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Rite of Passage: Students in South Carolina taking the test

To Richard Atkinson, cognitive psychologist, testing expert and, since 1995, president of the University of California, the SAT has always been a mystery. What, exactly, does it measure? The original exam, developed in the 1920s, was designed to predict how well students would do in college. The Educational Testing Service, which develops the test, insists it still does. But Atkinson, 71, is worried about the growing number of parents pouring thousands of dollars into SAT-prep programs (last year an estimated 150,000 students paid more than $100 million for coaching) and even shopping around for psychologists to certify that their kids are disabled so that they get extra test-taking time. He was horrified by a visit to his granddaughters' prep school. The 12-year-olds, he says, "spend hours each month — directly and indirectly — preparing for the SAT, studying long lists of verbal analogies such as 'untruthful is to mendaciousness' as 'circumspect is to caution.'" Atkinson, once a distinguished visiting scholar at E.T.S., decided to take several SAT sample tests, hoping to find some value in all the kids' efforts. His conclusion: "America's overemphasis on the SAT is compromising our educational system."

Last week Atkinson said he would recommend that the University of California, one of the largest public systems in the country, no longer use the SAT in its admissions process. The proposal is monumental, not just because soon tens of thousands of high schoolers may no longer have to take the test to get into college but because it could fundamentally change the way the kids are tested.

The problem with the SAT, says Atkinson, is that when kids do poorly, teachers and parents can't point to specific concepts they need to work on. At a time when states are stressing standards and accountability, the SAT is linked to neither. He proposes new standardized tests tied directly to state standards so that anyone who masters the curriculum can succeed.

One intended effect of the change is to attract more minority students. Black and Latino enrollment at U.C. dipped measurably in the wake of California's 1996 ban on the use of affirmative action in admissions. The SATs are a major reason: last year the mean score for blacks on the SAT was 198 points lower than that for whites. Recently, when Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania and Bates College in Maine stopped requiring the SAT, minority applications doubled.

Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, which administers the SAT, says the racial disparities are owing to differences in educational opportunity. He contends that "dropping the SAT makes no more sense than dropping classroom grades." Colleges, he says, need a "common yardstick in an era of grade inflation." Last year 40% of students who took the SAT reported having an A average in high school, up from 28% in 1990. And evaluating applicants without the SAT is an expensive proposition. Michael Cowan, chairman of the U.C. academic senate, which would have to approve Atkinson's proposal, estimates that changing the admissions procedure to resemble that of an lite liberal-arts college may require a 100% increase in the admissions budget. Atkinson is undeterred. "We have no choice but to invest the necessary funds," he says. "The stakes are too high not to ensure the job is done right."