May be time to lose SAT I for college admissions

In 2001, the president of the University of California, Richard Atkinson, recommended that the UC system drop the SAT I as a requirement for admissions. That seemingly innocuous suggestion prompted widespread panic at the College Board, developers of the SAT I, the largest college admissions test.

The panic was understandable. One out of eight U.S. students resides in California and the UC system is the largest indirect SAT I customer. The College Board scrambled to make changes to its product to satisfy Atkinson. In March of 2005, the new SAT I debuted with a beefed-up math section, no analogies and a writing component. UC expressed its satisfaction with the new test, the scare passed and the College Board resumed business as usual.

The SAT I is once again under siege. The College Board agreed last month to pay part of a $2.85 million settlement to approximately 4,400 test-takers who had their SAT I tests inaccurately scored in October of 2005.

Further, score results of SAT I tests for the class of 2007 are the lowest since 1999 and critics are charging that the new test is too long, causing students to lose focus during the course of the nearly four-hour exam. By comparison, the SAT I’s chief rival, the ACT, saw slight performance gains by the class of 2007.

A potentially much more serious broadside was leveled at the SAT I in July. In an article entitled “Abolish the SAT,” published by American.com, Charles Murray argues persuasively that the time has come to, well, abolish the SAT I. What makes Murray’s criticism of the test so powerful is that Murray, co-author of the 1994 book about intelligence, “The Bell Curve,” formerly thought that the SAT I served a democratizing purpose — to identify intellectual talent, regardless of a person’s race or wealth. That, in fact, was why the test was developed. Murray now believes that the SAT I is a “negative force in American life.”

Based upon several research studies, Murray concludes that the SAT I, which is primarily an intelligence test, adds very little to other measures predictive of college success.

SAT II tests, unlike the SAT I, are achievement tests tailored to specific subjects students take in high school. When SAT II tests are considered along with a student’s high school grade point average, the two measures strongly predict how students will do in college. However, combining the SAT I with GPA and the SAT II’s adds “next to nothing to an admission’s officer’s ability to forecast how an applicant will do in college,” Murray writes.

Murray advocates using four SAT II subject tests in place of the SAT I.

Perhaps Murray’s strongest argument for eliminating the SAT I from college admissions is his belief that the test has become a “totem for members of the cognitive elite.” The fact that the test is so readily identified as an intellectual badge of one’s worth — or lack thereof — provides the privileged with even greater proof of their superiority. Student achievement on tests such as the SAT II are both a better and fairer measure by which to judge prospective college students than the SAT I.

Patrick Mattimore teaches AP psychology at a college preparatory school in San Francisco and formerly taught at a public high school for 10 years. He is a fellow at the Institute for Analytic Journalism.

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