A Call to Discard the SATCollege Board says ‘don’t scapegoat SAT because of inequalities in educational systems’By Pamela Burdman
SACRAMENTO, Calif.University of California President Richard Atkinson’s recent call to jettison the SAT I would eliminate a test that has long aroused suspicions of racial bias, a move diversity advocates have been proposing for decades.This time, however, the idea may receive a fuller hearing than it has in years, because Atkinson’s very stature lends credibility to questions about the worth of the exams. Besides heading the nation’s most prestigious public university system, Atkinson is a cognitive scientist who once headed the National Academy of Sciences and a National Research Council board on testing. “To have someone like Atkinson adopt this cause is very, very helpful,” says Bob Schaeffer, public education director at FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. “With a critique from FairTest or the NAACP or MALDEF [Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund], after a while, the media says, the ‘same-old, same-old.’ We’re customary suspects. He’s not.”Under Atkinson’s proposal, UC’s eight undergraduate campuses would shift their attention away from the SAT I, which he said measures “undefined notions of ‘aptitude’ or ‘intelligence'” to tests such as the SAT II, a series of subject-based achievement tests that evaluate students’ mastery of specific academic subjects.The minority enrollment decline at some UC schools has been a concern to UC administrators ever since the 1995 Board of Regents decision to abolish affirmative action. Black and Latino enrollment is down slightly around the system, and dramatically at campuses such as UC Berkeley, where the current freshman class has 36 percent fewer minority students than the 1997 entering class. But Atkinson focused his comments not on racial diversity, but on educational quality. “America’s overemphasis on the SAT is compromising our educational system,” says Atkinson. Citing the more than $100 million collected yearly by test coaching outfits such as Stanley Kaplan, Atkinson described the SAT as a distraction from important educational goals. “It is the educational equivalent of a nuclear arms race: We know that this is a harmful situation — but we also know that anyone or any institution opting out of the competition does so at considerable risk,” said Atkinson in his speech.His written remarks became public via newspaper leaks on Feb. 17, one day before his scheduled speech before the American Council on Education’s national meeting in Washington. The first step under Atkinson’s plan would be to replace the SAT I with the SAT II. But that idea will remain a proposal until it is endorsed by UC faculty — a likely, but not guaranteed, scenario — and then formally proposed to the regents, some of whom are openly skeptical. Nevertheless, the College Board, the consortium of colleges that oversees the SAT and a number of other exams, swiftly came to the test’s defense. Its president, former West Virginia Gov. Gaston Caperton, has been working overtime to respond to press inquiries. Rather than the mysterious barometer that critics allege, Caperton calls the test an important yardstick for schools nationwide. He says the SAT should not be scapegoated simply because it reveals the inequalities pervasive in the U.S. educational system.“We think the SAT is fair. We think it works. It has been shown as a clear indicator of how a student does in the first year of school. It is the best thing a school can use to look at students across the country,” Caperton told Black Issues.What Caperton and Atkinson share is an uneasiness about the disparities among ethnic groups on the SAT. In California, and around the country, Black and Latino students on average score lower on the test than their White and Asian counterparts.“So is it any wonder that leaders of minority communities perceive the SAT to be unfair? … The real bias of their concern is that they have no way of knowing what the SAT measures and, therefore, have no basis for assessing its fairness or helping their children acquire the skills to do better,” Atkinson said in his speech. His remarks seem to echo the research of Dr. Claude Steele, a Stanford University psychologist who has studied the performance disparities and found that minority students are hampered by a “stereotype threat,” (see Black Issues, Dec. 21, 2000).“Even when there’s not much bias in the test items, there may be a real ethnic or gender bias in the experience of taking the test,” Steele says. “Those biases make it not only a weak predictor, but a kind of biased predictor.”Steele agrees with Atkinson that achievement tests such as the SAT II are an improvement. “This will focus the accountability of the system on actually learning in school, as opposed to whatever area the SAT taps into. We’re the only country in the world that has used such a test to allocate opportunities like college admissions,” he says. Nevertheless, Steele, Atkinson and most experts agree that the plan, if adopted, will not boost minority enrollments overnight.According to a preliminary analysis of applicants, UC officials found that the performance gap is somewhat lower for the SAT II than for the SAT. On the SAT, the average score for underrepresented minorities is 10 percent lower than for all students. On the SAT II, that gap is just 7 percent.How those differences will translate into college admissions is far from clear, however, partly because UC may actually have to raise the standards for the SAT II in order to meet the state’s requirement of admitting the top one-eighth of the state’s graduating seniors. “Tightening the standards will probably end up with the same pool,” says Dr. Michael Shires, a Pepperdine University public policy professor who specializes in higher education.Furthermore, UC recently decreased its emphasis on the SAT — simply by assigning more weight to the SAT II.At least one regent thinks the university should give that change a try before overhauling the system once again. “I’m skeptical that another change is a good idea, until we see how the last one we made works,” says San Diego attorney John Davies, an appointee of former governor Pete Wilson. “Overemphasizing is one thing, but eliminating entirely is another. I had thought we’d struck the middle road already.”But the Board of Regents has been re-shaped by Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, and Davis’ appointees are likely to side with Atkinson on the SAT matter.”I’m thrilled that this is coming to the table,” says Regent Sherry Lansing, CEO of Paramount Pictures and a former teacher. “This is something that I’ve been concerned with as long as I can remember.”With such strong feelings about the issue, the debate is not likely to go away any time soon.
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