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Pitch the SAT

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A few years ago, a colleague of mine who teaches biology at Carolina Day School in Asheville, North Carolina, took a college course in softball to fulfill her physical education requirement. Every time the class met, the students chose up sides and played softball.

After playing 20 or so games over the semester, my friend and her classmates arrived for their final class during exam week. The teacher met them not on the softball field but in the gym, where he gave them a final exam--their only graded assignment of the semester. He lined them up facing a brick wall and handed each one a softball. He stood by with a stopwatch and a clipboard.

"Throw the ball against the wall, and catch it as it comes off," he said. "Your semester grade will be determined by how many times you can do that in one minute. Go!"

At least four things bear noting here. First, the test didn't measure the skills needed to play softball, such as hitting, pitching, and playing in the field. Second, the test ignored the skills and attitudes that make playing softball a pleasant and productive pastime, such as building team spirit, coaching teammates, joking to relieve tension, and consoling players who make errors. Third, the single skill the test did measure was one never used in a game: Never do softball players catch balls they have thrown against a wall.

And fourth, this "Softball Assessment Test" is easy for the teacher to create and administer. It's easy to grade, and it gives the teacher an objective, quantifiable score by which to rank students. Such characteristics more than compensate (in the instructor's mind) for the fact that the test has little to do with the team sport of softball or the skills needed to play it well.

This fourth element makes the Softball Assessment Test particularly analogous to the standardized exams used in American education to decide who goes to college and which colleges they attend.

Consider the SAT I: Reasoning Test (formerly known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT) developed and administered by the Educational Testing Service for the College Board. The board says, "The SAT I is a three-hour test, primarily multiple-choice, that measures verbal and mathematical reasoning abilities." (ETS also offers tests to evaluate high school students' achievement in specific academic disciplines such as literature and chemistry. Formerly known as Achievement Tests, these are now called the SAT II: Subject Tests. This essay deals only with the SAT I, which is still commonly referred to as the SAT.)

The verbal component of the SAT, the part that's supposed to predict student performance in college, especially in the humanities and social sciences, consists entirely of multiple-choice questions. Yet most professors in the humanities and social sciences at reputable colleges and universities seldom give multiple-choice examinations. Professors typically assign papers that students are to write (and revise) over days, weeks, or even months. The professors also assign essay examinations based on lectures and texts. The verbal portion of the SAT has no more relevance to this kind of study than the Softball Assessment Test has to softball.

Why, then, do so many colleges and universities require applicants to submit SAT scores?

Perhaps it's because to those institutions the SAT is free and convenient. Test-takers assume the cost: $21.50 during the 1995-96 school year. Many high school students take the test several times in hopes of raising their scores (and thus improving their college prospects). Students eager--or desperate--to post high scores may also buy book, video, or software SAT-preparation guides. Other students pay hundreds of dollars for tutors or prep courses. This, of course, gives an edge to students whose families can afford such prep materials and instruction. (Many educators have long maintained that the SAT is based on certain cultural assumptions that place women and members of ethnic and racial minority groups at an unfair disadvantage.)

The students also bear the emotional burden of the test. My conversations with hundreds of high school and college students indicate that most meet the SAT with fear and anxiety. After getting their scores, they may feel a false sense of accomplishment ("I goofed off in school and got lousy grades, but my SAT's are good, so I'm doing fine.") or humiliation ("I don't understand; I studied hard and have an A-minus average, but I got a so-so SAT score. I guess I'm not as smart as I thought I was.").

All this for a test that has no relevance to the work students will be expected to do in college, a test that is no more reliable a predictor of success than the student's high school transcript.

In his book Schools of Hope: Developing Mind and Character in Today's Youth, Douglas Heath, professor emeritus of psychology at Haverford College, writes: "Scholastic aptitude tests measure too few high-level intellectual and other strengths to be used as good indicators of a person's success, even in college. About 85 percent of the reasons why college freshmen's grades differ may have nothing to do with SAT scores. SATs do not assess [the] mind's varied strengths, such as imaginativeness, judgment, inductive skill, reflectiveness, and organizational and synthetic ability. Nor do they measure character strengths, such as curiosity, doggedness, and the maturity necessary to do well in one's work. Aware of this argument, the College Board is creating tests that measure more varied skills."

Connecticut College is one of a number of colleges that no longer requires applicants to submit SAT scores. In a 1994 letter to school counselors, its admissions staff wrote: "Connecticut College is making the SAT I optional for applicants for the college class of 1999 and all future classes because we can no longer justify its use. The SAT I has become an unnecessary burden on students and counselors. It is unfortunate that, in many cases, the SAT I causes students, parents, and therefore schools to be so concerned about test performance that curriculums focus on test success rather than more substantial educational goals. We would like to be part of a movement to put curricular emphasis back where it more appropriately belongs."

Howard Gardner, co-director of Proj-ect Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, writes in his book Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice: "In my view, there is little need and little advantage to be gained by continuing to require the Scholastic Aptitude Test....Most colleges are not selective enough to warrant such an instrument, and those that are have sufficient additional sources of information about their candidates. The SAT taps only two intelligences and does so in a relatively narrow way. (One can be a significant scientist or writer without possessing the skills to excel on an SAT.) Teaching for (or to) the SAT wastes much valuable time. I would like to see leading colleges follow the example of Bates College and Franklin and Marshall College: They should dispense with the requirement of the Scholastic Aptitude Test and its counterpart instruments."

Clearly the time has come to lift this counterproductive burden from the backs of America's high school students and their families. Colleges should rely less on standardized tests like the SAT and more on high school transcripts, interviews, portfolios of student work, student essays, and letters of recommendation. The continued reliance on the SAT suggests that the American education system prefers illusion over integrity. We want to believe in the SAT because it's so convenient. But we cannot measure someone's intellectual promise with a multiple-choice exam, and we know we can't. Still, we pretend we can. Now is the time to drop the SAT and find intellectually honest and equitable ways to select students for college.

The next time you hear someone talk about SAT scores, listen closely. You just might hear, somewhere in the distance, the sound of a softball thumping against a brick wall.

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