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Summer 2001
Putting the SAT to the Test
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UC President Richard Atkinson's proposal to drop the SAT I as a requirement for college admission has ignited a debate that now is crackling throughout the nation
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By Marina Dundjerski '94
Illustration by Mark Ulriksen

FOR DECADES, the SAT has reigned supreme as the test, a pencil-biting, white-knuckle experience for generations of high school students that admissions officers nationwide have used to measure an undergraduate applicant's potential for success in college.

Although first administered 75 years ago, it was the University of California's adoption of the standardized test in 1968 as a requirement to enter the Golden State's flagship university system that propelled its popularity nationwide. Today, more than 2 million high school students take the SAT I Reasoning Test each year, and the UC, with more than 90,000 applicants systemwide, remains its biggest user.

But that may not be the case for much longer if UC President Richard C. Atkinson can help it.

In February, Atkinson dropped a bombshell during a keynote address at the American Council on Education's annual meeting in Washington, D.C., by advocating that the SAT I be dumped as a condition of admission to the nation's universities, and by revealing that he had already asked the Academic Council -- the faculty body with responsibility for UC admissions standards -- to consider making the test optional. Calling it "the educational equivalent of the nuclear arms race," he said, "America's overemphasis on the SAT is compromising our educational system."

A distinguished cognitive psychologist, Atkinson comes to the debate with significant credentials; he has made a career out of measuring intelligence and was the founding chair of the Board on Testing and Assessment, which was created by the National Academies of Science in 1993 to examine nationwide testing practices. So when he made his proposal, it was as if he'd launched a missile that exploded not only within the circles of academe, but also on the front pages and covers of the nation's leading news outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time magazine.

Atkinson says the potentially "destructive" nature of the SAT I coalesced for him when he observed a classroom of 12-year-olds in a private school studying verbal analogies in anticipation of many years later taking the SAT -- spending time, he says, on test-taking techniques rather than developing reading and writing skills.

"Too many students really believe this test is measuring something fundamental, and when they don't score that well they feel they can never succeed in life and they're branded as basically inferior," Atkinson says. "Universities have played into this by placing so much importance on the SAT I."

Atkinson is not the first to criticize the SAT. Over the years, disparities in scores have prompted charges that the test is biased against females, underrepresented minorities and students from low-income families. In 2000, for example, black females scored an average 436 on the verbal portion and 419 on the math section, compared with an average score of 529 verbal and 549 math for white males, according to the College Board, the nonprofit association that created the test.

Many educators, however, say the SAT I -- with seven new tests administered annually, each taking two years, at a cost of $200,000, to produce -- is one of the most thoroughly researched tests available today and meets the highest psychometric standards. Rather than suggesting that the test is a biased instrument, they say, the gap in scores reflects unequal educational opportunity.

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