Assessment Commentary

On Changing the SAT

By Peter Sacks — June 05, 2002 6 min read

The aging college-admissions test known as the SAT, which has become a lightning rod for controversy about access to higher education in America, is about to undergo yet another face-lift.

No amount of tinkering with the SAT will improve what is fundamentally a flawed enterprise.

Under increasingly heavy flak from critics, the College Board, which owns the SAT, says it’s considering revamping its bread-and-butter test in order to make it more useful to colleges. Not coincidentally, the proposal comes on the heels of a threat by a large and prominent customer of the SAT, the University of California system, to quit using the storied exam for freshman admissions.

In truth, however, no amount of tinkering with the SAT will improve what is fundamentally a flawed enterprise. Along with endless standardized achievement tests that the states and the federal government impose on schools, the SAT and similar exams virtually define the academic experiences of American students—often for the worse.

From preschool on, students encounter a mind-numbing array of standardized tests that too often promote the interests of everyone but students themselves. The unabashed winners of our national swoon over testing are those motivated by profit, including testing companies and countless other firms that aim to teach students how to take tests and improve test scores. The real aims of education—learning for understanding and genuine achievement—play increasingly trivial roles in a testing culture that reduces all aspects of scholastic life to performance on standardized tests.

The College Board’s contemplated revisions to the SAT won’t touch these underlying problems, and will even worsen them. No doubt, when the University of California’s president, Richard C. Atkinson, offered his eye- opening proposal last year to quit using what’s known as the SAT I for admission to the 175,000-student system, the College Board was dealt a public relations disaster. But make no mistake: The board’s tinkering with the SAT now is all about marketing, public relations, and survival of the College Board, not about improving the educational experiences of students or the quality of schools.

Consider the board’s idea to add a writing test, including a short essay and multiple-choice questions on writing, to the SAT I “reasoning” test. The move is apparently a response to the criticism that the SAT ought to be more aligned with what students actually study in school. According to some critics of the existing SAT I, it is essentially an aptitude test that is only remotely connected to school subjects. By adding a writing component to the exam, College Board officials also believe they are responding to concerns in higher education that students’ writing skills need much improvement.

From preschool on, students encounter a mind-numbing array of standardized tests that too often promote the interests of everyone but students themselves.

The College Board’s proposal illustrates well how the testing culture corrupts the aims of education. Indeed, there’s plenty of evidence that standardized testing of writing is a lousy way to improve students’ writing skills. When I taught college writing, for example, I had to essentially deprogram my students of the robotic notion that an essay must be formulated into five highly structured paragraphs (an introduction followed by three paragraphs of supporting evidence and a conclusion), “essays” that were as boring for them to write as for me to read. But formulaic writing is exactly the kind of writing that schools often teach in classrooms governed by high-stakes tests.

Besides adding a writing component to the SAT I and possibly dropping the infamous word analogies, the College Board says it might beef up the math section with algebra and trigonometry, subjects absent from the current test. In other words, the board seems to be trying to make the SAT I “reasoning” test more like the various standardized achievement tests that it already sponsors, the so-called SAT II exams.

Consciously or not, the College Board’s apparent attempts to make the SAT I more like an achievement test reflect a popular undercurrent of mythology about standardized testing in America: that a sharp line exits between undesirable aptitude tests such as the SAT I and supposedly good or better achievements tests such as the SAT II. But these are distinctions without real differences, in that score correlations between so- called aptitude tests like the SAT I and achievements tests like the SAT II are exceedingly high.

Both IQ tests and the SAT I measure traits inculcated from very young ages in highly educated households. Rather than a measure of innate aptitude, an SAT I score mirrors one's place in the social and economic hierarchy.

Another myth is that the SAT I is an aptitude or an intelligence test reflective of “innate” abilities. It’s true that the SAT’s ancestry is derived from IQ testing. But the history of intelligence testing in America and Europe shows that the verbal and math “ability” measured by both IQ tests and the SAT I are traits inculcated from very young ages in highly educated households, which impart school-like experiences to young children. Rather than a measure of innate aptitude, an SAT I score mirrors one’s place in the social and economic hierarchy. And the same can be said of standardized achievement tests.

Indeed, the relatively superficial changes the College Board is contemplating for the SAT I would do nothing to address the most damaging aspects of the admissions-testing culture. President Atkinson and other educators are rightly concerned that students, pushed by well-meaning parents and schools, are spending far too much time and money prepping for college- admissions tests, to the exclusion of genuine learning and meaningful extracurricular activities.

But a high-stakes test by any other name is still a high-stakes test. Mr. Atkinson and other educators say they’re dismayed at the sight of children barely out of grade school being drilled on SAT-type word analogies in order to improve their chances of admission to UC Berkeley or UCLA several years hence. Modest changes to the SATor even replacing it outright with a different test altogether—won’t counter this terrible trend.

At bottom, the College Board’s suggested changes to the SAT amount to a pragmatic corporate tactic designed to appease the University of California system, a large and influential customer that has threatened to quit using the SAT I altogether and replace it with either the SAT II or a standardized achievement test of its own creation.

Both policy changes, coming from these venerated and highly influential institutions in American higher education, might seem momentous. But in truth, they are half-measures that will do little to make top private and public colleges more accessible to those among us who have been most punished by the testing culture.

Let's recognize the SAT and similar college-entrance exams for what they are—sorting devices for the bureaucratic convenience of college-admissions officials.

Let’s recognize the SAT and similar college-entrance exams for what they are— sorting devices for the bureaucratic convenience of college-admissions officials, tests that sort viciously by class and race, and tests that aren’t particularly good predictors of college performance, either.

Critics of those challenging the hegemony of gatekeeping exams in higher education almost always retort something like “no test is perfect,” or “we need something to objectively compare students,” or ask “what would you replace the SAT I with?”

Those arguments frequently ignore the overpowering evidence that actual performance in school, such as class rank, as indicated by grades, is almost always the best predictor of success in college. The standardized tests many say we can’t do without are in fact distant abstractions of the real work and concrete skills it takes to succeed in school and life.

Institutions like the University of California need to completely rethink old notions of merit and recognize that genuine achievement and accomplishment aren’t measurable with standardized tests. It seems doubtful to me that the SAT I in whatever guise, or other die-hards of the old regime, would have much place in that bright future.

Peter Sacks is a writer living in Boise, Idaho. His latest book is Standardized Minds: The High Price of America’s Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 2002 edition of Education Week as On Changing the SAT


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