There are probably few large groups of
regular people (the College Board, for example, excluded) who have
thought more about standardized testing and what it means for
college admissions — and college performance and life after
college — than the campus community at the University. During
the long, long process that led to the eventual U.S. Supreme Court
resolution of the affirmative action lawsuits brought against the
University, every element of the college admissions process was
evaluated and reevaluated by people on this campus; not
surprisingly it was the SATs that were most aggressively taken to
task by proponents of affirmative action. They said (and maintain)
that the SATs are inaccurate predictors of college success, that
they demonstrate racial and socioeconomic bias, that good scores on
these tests can be bought through prohibitively expensive review

Kate Green

True, true and true.

SAT scores, to be sure, are indicative of something about the
test taker — and not only, I think, of how well that test
taker knows how to “play the game.” Kids who score
perfect 1600s are likely to have something going for them in the
intelligence department, even if it’s in a very specific
sector of that department. But the tests, as they stand, cause more
problems than they solve.

So why is it that the College Board, a group of 4,300
educational institutions (including universities), is overhauling
these tests in ways that complicate the already existing

There are two significant problems with the way that the board
is changing the SATs. First, it seems that the new test will be no
more successful than its predecessor (which is still in use) at
addressing the problems of bias and success-prediction accuracy.
The second is that the board is changing the test with an eye to
changing high school curricula. As Time magazine reports this week,
“In short, the dreaded SAT could actually help produce a
national curriculum, a sweeping education reform enacted without
the passage of a single law.”

The new test will require an essay which seems like a close
relative to one of those required by a GRE. It will ask students to
react to a very broad statement; the example that Time magazine
shows is “What is your view on the idea that it takes failure
to achieve success?” The math will be harder and the verbal
will no longer include analogy questions, but will place more of an
emphasis on English grammar and sentence parsing.

Some critics of the new test claim that it will swing the bias
toward girls, who historically fare better on verbal section
questions and essay tests. How is this an improvement over a bias
toward boys (who this year scored an average of 43 points better
than girls)? Moreover, according to Jay Rosner (whom I saw testify
in the affirmative action case when it was still being tried in
Detroit), elimination of the analogy section may exacerbate racial
disparities. The gap between the performance of black and white
students on the analogy section is smaller than it is on the rest
of the test. Companies will still be able to offer simples test
strategies for thousands of dollars, continuing to profit from the
anxiety of college-bound students and their parents who are willing
and able to pay a price for an extra 100 points. An intelligent
overhaul of the SAT needs to use some measure of effort to address
the current problems.

But instead, it seems that the board is looking at the test
through a lens that has changed little even in the face of sharp
and important criticism. Instead, the board is seeing the tests as
an opportunity to take advantage of the considerable power that it
already wields over high school curricula. My sophomore and junior
years of high school seem to be marked by a dull soundtrack of
standardized-test directions and the command to put my pencil down;
the introduction of an essay — a yardstick that should
logically be less objective than test-makers have managed to make
it — now means that millions of 16-year-olds will also be
drilled into thinking that a good essay is a humorless and stilted
one with an introduction foreshadowing three arguments, three
arguments and a conclusion summarizing three arguments.

The scurry to change lesson plans to conform to a revamped test
should be a patently clear indicator that these tests wield far too
much power in secondary education. Even as some colleges have begun
to discredit the value of these tests, more high schools have
latched onto them and the positive relationship between high scores
and high real estate values. Perhaps the board’s decision to
reinvent this test will be an even louder wake-up call to how
culturally dependent we have become on bubble sheets and No. 2
pencils when we see high school schedules restructured to
accommodate a very flawed packet of paper. What is all too clear
even now, however, is that the College Board is abusing its power
— a disheartening sight after all the critical thought that
has gone into evaluation of these tests in recent years.

Hanink can be reached at








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