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March 4, 2001

Is This the End for the SAT?


AUSTIN, Tex. Richard Atkinson, president of the University of California system, recently observed a classroom of 12-year-olds using analogies to extend their mastery of English. Dr. Atkinson realized that these children were preparing for the SAT. They should not have to take the test for another five years. But some students will take it at 12 and then over and over again until it's "for real."

Dr. Atkinson told his story at the start of a controversial speech last month recommending that the University of California system no longer require scores for the SAT I the "aptitude SAT" in deciding admissions. His concerns are less about whether SAT's work for colleges than about unintended consequences, like the impact of the test on curriculums and massive investments in test preparation. He said misuse of the SAT is so widespread that the overemphasis on it "is compromising our educational system" probably the most serious challenge the SAT has ever faced.

The maker of the SAT, the College Board, has contributed to the crisis. It is a nonprofit organization, but its survival depends on a certain level of sales. The board seeks to provide expert services, develop tests and expand its markets. Added to the mixture is a zeal to spread its influence over education. The relationship between the College Board's wish to test children properly and its wish to raise revenue and expand its influence has gone from being a mild conflict to being a troubling contradiction.

The board needs to admit unambiguously that the SAT and its relative, the PSAT/NMSQT, have become unhealthy obsessions. The board should actively discourage the use of tests for anything for which they were not developed. For example, political decision makers in several states, including California and Texas, look to the SAT to perform inappropriate tasks. In its College-Bound Senior Reports, the board asserts that using SAT scores "to compare or evaluate teachers, schools, districts, states or other educational units is not valid" and says it "strongly discourages such uses." Other than these buried phrases, however, there is no serious attempt to discourage them. On the contrary, the board provides massive amounts of data to states for "school report cards" to make such comparisons.

A similar muddle characterizes the questions of curriculums and "teaching to the test." In a 1989 monograph, "The Common Yardstick: A Case for the SAT," the board argued that the SAT was necessary in a nation with a vast diversity of educational curriculums. The report described the SAT as "curriculum- neutral" and said it "presumes no particular pattern of course work or course content." But upper management, through the board's regional offices, has often advocated "curricular alignment" between state standards and the SAT and PSAT (which is made up of retired SAT questions). For a fee, schools and districts can secure a PSAT Summary of Answers Report to fine-tune their curriculums and so improve performance on this supposedly curriculum-neutral test.

Just a few years ago, the PSAT was considered a test for college- bound 11th graders. Today, the board markets it as an all-student test. The number of eighth graders taking the PSAT increased by 125 percent from 1995 through 1999. Dr. Atkinson's outrage at seeing 12-year-olds practicing for the SAT is exceeded by the anger of test-center supervisors forced to counsel frightened middle schoolers facing a test designed for college-bound seniors. As the tested population grows younger and younger, the test's original college- admissions focus nearly disappears.

The greatest challenge before the College Board, however, is to seriously re-evaluate its messages on SAT test preparation and coaching. Is the SAT coachable or not? In 1989, in response to claims that prep courses could result in 120- to 140- point increases, and thus that the test favored wealthy students who could afford coaching, the board teamed with an Educational Testing Service scientist, Donald Powers, to study the effects of prep courses. Mr. Powers presented compelling arguments and data showing that coaching had very little effect on score increases. Yet the board sells an extensive suite of test preparation materials, often advertised as "Test Prep from the Test Makers."

All is not lost for the SAT. For most universities, the SAT actually works, in that the exam does do well at predicting future achievement. And the "holistic" approach embraced by testing opponents has dangers of its own. How can a college admissions officer explain to an applicant that "other applicants had richer life experiences than you" or "we were hoping to admit someone from another high school"?

The ACT and the SAT are important to universities. The problem is that this incredible expanding test is being asked to do far more than it should. The SAT program needs to shrink, a change College Board administrators are not likely to make unless the board's member organizations representatives of high schools, colleges, universities and larger school districts force it to.

The SAT, as an aptitude test, did once help level the playing field so that bright students from poor schools would have a greater chance to secure college admissions. This was the intended mission of the SAT and this is the mission from which the SAT has, in Dr. Atkinson's view, strayed so far that the test should be abandoned.

But the problem is really with misuse of the test rather than the test itself. The College Board would do well to restrain the uses made of its tests and listen carefully to friendly advice, its own research and some not so friendly criticism. Otherwise we will probably see the end of the SAT.

Gary M. Lavergne, director of admissions research at the University of Texas at Austin, is a former College Board employee.

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