The SAT: A Test at “War with Itself.”

By Debra Viadero — April 20, 2009 1 min read
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Richard C. Atkinson, the former president of the University of California, is widely credited with having helped make the SAT what it is today.

That’s because, in 2001, when he was still at the helm of that huge university system, Atkinson recommended dropping the test as an admissions requirement in favor of subject-matter tests. His criticism led the College Board to undertake a dramatic overhaul of the widely used test. The result was the SAT-R, unveiled in 2005. It dropped those pesky, esoteric verbal analogies, covered higher-level mathematics like algebra, and included a new writing exam.

But the changes seem to have failed to impress Atkinson. In a speech last week before the American Educational Research Association in San Diego, the former university president and current professor emeritus, said that, while he likes the writing test, the overall exam isn’t any better than the old one at predicting which students will be successful in their first year of college — even though it takes an hour longer to complete.

He characterized the revamped exam as “a test at war with itself” because it attempts to test both students’ aptitude and what they learned in high school, thus sending mixed signals to high schools. You can read the full text of his speech here at the Web site for U.C.'s Center for Studies in Higher Education. What colleges ought to be basing admissions on instead, Atkinson and his co-author Saul Geiser write, is a combination of high school grades and curriculum-based tests that are tied more closely to what students learn in high school.

Sounding the counterpoint for the discussion, Robert L. Linn, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Colorado in Boulder, said “buying the best prediction” was not the point of the SAT overhaul. The idea was to do a better job of signaling what colleges and universities value.

“I think there is an important role for a national testing system,” Linn added, “and the technical quality of the ACT and the SAT is better than most state tests developed for high school students.”

Meanwhile, the number of universities dropping the SAT-R as an admissions requirement grows. The latest schools to join the “test optional” movement: Sewanee University of the South and Fairfield University.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.