• U.S.

Should SATs Matter?

17 minute read
John Cloud

For the past two weeks, Time has been asking famous and accomplished people to tell us their SAT scores. Most of them declined — which is a little strange, since the big bad test couldn’t possibly hurt Alan Greenspan or Oprah Winfrey. But the SAT occupies a central place in the American psyche, lying at the terrifying intersection of ability, class and pride. As TV’s Conan O’Brien put it, “It has taken 20 years to forget the trauma of that damned test, and looking up my scores would be like going back to Vietnam.”

The test’s prominence ensures that shouting matches will erupt over it regularly. Usually one side says the SAT should die because it’s racist; the other says it should flourish because it maintains standards. Their arguments are important but had started to seem pointless, since the number of SAT takers has increased virtually every year since Pearl Harbor.

Then, in a Feb. 18 speech to his fellow college presidents, the psychologist who runs the University of California suggested something radical: Scrap the thing. Richard Atkinson says the test hurls kids into months of practicing word games and math riddles at the expense of studying chemistry or poetry. He wants to make SAT scores an optional part of the application for all 90,000 kids who want to go to U.C. each year. “The SATs have acquired a mystique that’s clearly not warranted,” he proclaims. “Who knows what they measure?” Those of us who wanted to stick a No. 2 pencil in our eye while puzzling the meaning of “mendacious” gave a cheer.

Last week U.C.’s faculty and regents started what will be a long, fiery debate over his proposal. Since Atkinson began attacking the test, college administrators across the U.S. have reopened old fights about the SAT and started new ones. President John Peters of Northern Illinois University says the reaction of the hundreds of college officials to the speech was “extremely positive”; he plans to suggest a review of his school’s standardized-test requirements at the next faculty meeting. The Georgia board of regents is reviewing admissions criteria, as are the University of Texas, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the College of Wooster in Ohio.

Most universities have no immediate plans to stop asking for SAT scores. But at those schools that were having second thoughts about the test, Atkinson’s stance will embolden anti- SAT forces. “It’s gutsy,” says Florida International University admissions chief Carmen Brown, “and a lot of other places will follow.” The College Board, which oversees the SAT, was worried enough after the speech to e-mail colleges a defense of its test.

The board had plenty of reasons to worry before then. The California rumblings come at a precarious time for the SAT. To be sure, it remains a key part of the college-application process. Last year 44% of the kids who graduated from high school took it, up from 41% in 1995. In all, more than 2 million students took the SAT in 2000. The second-biggest admissions test, the act, had 1.8 million takers last year. Published by an Iowa testing company, the act started as a rival to the SAT and focuses more on subject matter than general reasoning. But the act never developed the sat’s aura of quality and rigor. Whenever a college suggests dropping its SAT requirement, traditionalists on campus inevitably say doing so would lower standards.

Over the past few years, however, the test’s defenders have started to lose ground. About 280 of the nation’s 2,083 four-year colleges and universities make the SAT optional for some or all applicants; a handful of prestigious colleges, including Franklin and Marshall and Mount Holyoke, have joined their ranks since the early ’90s and say they aren’t admitting idiots as a result. Hamilton College is considering making the SAT optional. Countless other schools have de-emphasized the SAT in more subtle ways — continuing to ask for scores but weighing other factors more heavily.

Granted many of the SAT-optional schools sit on utopian campuses in liberal New England villages. But it’s getting hard to find an admissions officer anywhere who says an SAT score alone tells you anything important. Deans at prestigious, traditional bastions such as Vanderbilt support the SAT, but some of the test’s assumed proponents aren’t guarding it against the barbarians. Even conservatives at the Weekly Standard have written about how the SAT has “shaped — and misshaped — modern American life.”

But if we drop the SAT, by what means should we allot membership in the nation’s élite? Of course, plenty of people make movies and play in the major leagues and run companies and write for magazines without high SATs. But good scores sure don’t hurt. Besides, don’t they measure something valuable — something beyond the diligence it takes to memorize the details of the Franco-Prussian War for a history exam? Much of the debate over the SAT boils down to this: Assuming we can measure innate intelligence, do we want a society that rewards genes? Are we afraid of what kind of society that might be? Or should we instead reward only the achievements of a life — what we do with our gifts, not what we start with?

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 élite 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.

But at some point such questions fly too high above the SAT, since almost no one seriously argues any longer that it’s an intelligence test. Not even its sponsors. The College Board stopped referring to it as the Scholastic Aptitude Test in 1994. For a while, the board redundantly called it an “assessment test.” Now it just says the name is SAT and is unwilling to give the test much of an identity beyond that. President Kurt Landgraf of the Educational Testing Service, the company that designs the SAT under contract from the College Board, says it “is a relatively good predictor of how students will do in their first year of college.” But he has a profoundly limited view of the nature of the test: “It’s a measure of a student’s ability to answer questions at a given place and time” — the kind of sentence you might find on an SAT to define the term tautology.

Research from colleges that have dropped the SAT requirement reinforces the notion that the test measures little. Bowdoin College, which started the sat-optional movement in 1969, often studies how well its admissions officers predict college performance without SATs. It has repeatedly found that its rating — a numerical value assigned each applicant on the basis of GPA, essays and other factors — correlates very highly with the student’s GPA at Bowdoin. Factoring in SAT scores improves that correlation only slightly. The College Board says that, across many colleges, SAT scores improve the correlation between admissions predictions and GPA realities by 10%.

And 10% means a lot on big campuses that can’t afford to spend hours getting to know applicants. Even at Bowdoin, hero of the anti-testing crowd, head of admissions Richard Steele has mixed feelings about other schools’ eliminating the SAT requirement. “I’m not one who would recommend this for everyone,” he says, noting that Bowdoin is now “highly encouraging” one growing group of hard-to-evaluate applicants, home schoolers, to submit their SATs. “It works for us because we’re only dealing with 5,000 applications, vs. 20,000 at the big schools.”

Lafayette College, a small liberal-arts and engineering school in Pennsylvania, started a five-year experiment with making SATs optional in 1995. And Lafayette officials found that the test, combined with other measures, correlated better with their students’ performance than other measures alone. In addition, admissions officers found themselves lost amid the inflated grades and unranked classes that became common in 1990s secondary education. “We felt the SAT gave us one more consistent, nationally recognized standard,” says Barry McCarty, a Lafayette dean. When the college went back to using the test last year, something unexpected happened: its applications surged 14%, and the school enrolled its strongest class in years. Though McCarty credits a flush economy and campus improvements for the increase, he raised another interesting possibility: “I do think students were more interested because of the perception of quality that’s attached to (the SAT).”

Surprisingly, just as some U.S. schools are dumping the SAT because they consider it unfair, the British have discovered its potential value in elevating smart kids at poor schools. A study released last week shows that kids in state-run schools who did well on the SAT are falling through the cracks of the current British testing system, which rewards those who have mastered specific subjects rather than general skills. Britain’s education czar said he thinks SATs could be compulsory there in a few years.

Admissions officers will always use hard-and-fast numbers to make decisions. But which numbers? U.C.’s Atkinson says California might develop its own test. Until it does, he suggests using scores on the SAT IIs, exams written by the same folks as the original SAT but focusing on specific subject matter. “Once you start testing kids on what they learned in science or social studies, then high schools can start improving how they teach these things,” says Michael Kirst, a Stanford education professor.

But SAT IIs (their name too was sanitized of meaning — they used to be Achievement Tests) have also spawned prep courses and racial score gaps. SAT II prep is actually more expensive than SAT I coaching, because most students take three separate SAT II exams, chosen from 22 subject areas. “(The SAT II) doesn’t begin to approach a kind of equity solution,” says University of Chicago dean Ted O’Neill.

College officials who de-emphasize the SAT usually focus more on evaluating the high schools that students come from. “If we don’t have SAT any longer, we’ll have to weigh more heavily on what’s left — the students’ GPA, their curriculum of college-prep courses and other things,” says Rae Lee Siporin, admissions director of ucla, which receives more applications each year — about 40,000 — than any other U.S. college. But those measures can amplify the inequalities among high schools even more than the SAT. As Duke University admissions director Christoph Guttentag notes, “The students in school districts with more resources will be more equipped.”

Take Advanced Placement classes, the top-level high school courses sponsored by the College Board. APs can help kids earn college credit early, but many high schools can’t afford the superqualified teachers and advanced books required for AP classrooms. A California study found that the availability of AP offerings in a school decreases as the percentage of minority and low-income students increases. In 1999, the A.C.L.U. sued the state of California, accusing U.C. schools of favoring applicants who have taken APs. Rasheda Daniel, a plaintiff, says she and her classmates didn’t have an equal chance of getting into U.C. “When you look at a lot of high schools, there are gross disparities across class lines,” she says. “It’s not fair.”

Daniel’s contention is right and explains why no admissions scheme can be totally equitable. Some reformers say Florida and Texas come closest. By law, the public universities in those states must offer admission to all who graduate in the top 20% (Florida) or 10% (Texas) of their class, no matter how poor their high school. Public universities in both states still use SATs, however — Florida to sort out which kids will go to the larger, more presitigious colleges, Texas to decide who needs retention programs.

Of course, Florida and Texas lawmakers weren’t attacking the SAT itself. They wanted to maintain diverse campuses even though affirmative action had been banned in their states. Conservatives suspect U.C.’s Atkinson has the same motive. Those who favor affirmative action have long wanted to ignore SAT scores, says Ward Connerly, a U.C. regent and anti-affirmative-action activist. (Atkinson has said he wasn’t motivated by race.) Connerly believes moving away from standard measures like the SAT will mean colleges lose their fundamental goal of academic excellence. “Looking at a student’s potential and the adversity they’ve overcome — what I call the Academic Misery Index — has the potential of totally reforming college,” he says, turning campuses into institutions that value diversity and community service over learning.

High schools are changing too. Baby boomer parents have started movements against homework, stringent graduation requirements, class rankings; it’s as though they believe their children should never have to suffer the indignity of being evaluated. Pity those kids when they get their first job. Last month Laila Kouri, 16, reflected on the SAT as she sat through an expensive coaching class in ritzy Westport, Conn. “I know people who blow off classes, are failing school and walk into the SAT and get a 1200 the first time,” she sighed. “How can this be a fair test?” Well, as Kouri has learned: no one ever said life’s tests were fair.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com