Equity & Diversity

SAT Officials at Odds On ‘Strivers’ Research Project

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — September 29, 1999 4 min read
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The sponsor of the SAT and the testing service that administers it appear to be at odds over the potential uses of forthcoming research on students who, based on such factors as racial, social, or family background, exceed expectations on the widely used college-entrance exam.

The Educational Testing Service says it is too early to decide whether the so-called “Strivers” project will even lead to a formula the ETS can offer colleges for identifying such students. But the Princeton, N.J.-based test-maker has already received inquiries from admissions officials seeking such a tool, ETS officials say.

Meanwhile, the new president of the College Board said he would try to block the ETS from offering any product that makes judgments about an individual’s academic potential or qualifications based on race or socioeconomic status.

“There is really an art to [blending a variety of factors] in student admissions that I don’t think can be put into a scientific formula,” said Gaston Caperton, a former Democratic governor of West Virginia who took over as the College Board’s president last month. “The thing I don’t like about the Strivers program, though the intent is good, is that it creates excuses in low expectations. It’s a little insulting.”

The New York City-based board, which sponsors the SAT, did not commission the Strivers project. Instead, the ETS--which produces and administers the test under contract to the board--decided to study how students’ scores might be affected by 14 factors, including race or ethnicity, parents’ occupations and education levels, school location, and quality of school. (“ETS Creating Demographic Index for SAT,” Sept. 8, 1999.)

“Strivers” are defined by the ETS as students who score from 1000 to 1190 points on the SAT’s combined 1600-point scale and exceed the average of students from similar backgrounds by at least 200 points.

No Product?

Ever since the news that the ETS was working on such a concept surfaced late last month, there has been an extraordinary degree of discourse over a commodity that the researchers say does not exist. Some observers, however, have suggested that the nonprofit testing organization was backpedaling in the wake of criticism.

Many press reports stated or implied that the availability of such an index was imminent. The ETS moved quickly to try to clarify those reports.

“There is no product,” ETS spokesman Kevin Gonzalez said last week. “For ETS to create a product, we would have to have a completed report. A decision hasn’t yet been made.” The report is due out in early November.

Critics of standardized testing have long argued that the SAT is not a fair measure of what disadvantaged students are capable of doing if they were to compete on a level playing field with their more privileged peers. For some, the ETS research is an acknowledgment of the inherent flaws of the test.

“A combined score of 1000 on the SAT is not always a 1000,” said Robert A. Schaeffer, the public education director for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, a Cambridge, Mass.-based watchdog group. “For years, ETS and the College Board have insisted that the SAT is a common yardstick.” It is, he continued, “if the yardstick is made of elastic.”

Nor has the clarification done much to quell the criticism from advocates of admissions policies based primarily on merit, who likened the index to race-norming.

“I don’t believe in double standards, whether they are based on race or based on social class,” said Abigail M. Thernstrom, a member of the Massachusetts state school board and a scholar on race-related issues. “Colleges should certainly ... take context into account, but I do not think it should be turned into some little bureaucratic checkoff list. Applicants should be looked at individually and assessed as to their potential.”

Searching for Fairness

Officials at the College Board agree. Wayne Camara, the board’s executive director, said that rating students based on blanket assumptions about their family or academic backgrounds does not leave room for exceptions and could give some students an unfair advantage and saddle others with a disadvantage in the admissions process.

“We need to find better ways of measuring the individual potential of students, not based on what group they are in,” Mr. Camara said.

Following attacks on racial preferences in college admissions in California, Texas, Washington state, and elsewhere--including federal lawsuits and state ballot measures--colleges have sought ways of increasing racial and ethnic diversity on their campuses without wading into increasingly murky legal waters. Researchers have been working to assist admissions offices on bringing greater equity to the admissions process without resorting to race-based formulas.

A merit index being tested at the Indiana Education Policy Center, for example, identifies students whose SAT scores are above average for their respective high schools, ignoring race or socioeconomic background. The formula has yielded a highly diverse applicant pool, according to Edward P. St. John, the director of the nonprofit research center at Indiana University in Bloomington.

“We need to find fair and just ways to create admissions pools that respond to merit and diversity,” Mr. St. John said. The formula was devised by William Goggin, an economist with the U.S. Department of Education, who worked independently on the project. The center expects to release a policy bulletin describing the research and offering suggestions within the next month.

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