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 Úlite 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."