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SAT-isfactory: The SAT is our best option, for now. | The Nation

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SAT-isfactory: The SAT is our best option, for now.

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SAT-isfactory: The SAT is our best option, for now.

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Tim Fernholz

Tuesday October 17, 2006

Asheesh Siddique is right to be disappointed in our federal aid system and I'm as glad as he is that universities are taking matters into their own hands to make it easier for lower-income students to obtain higher education. But that's exactly why I have to disagree with him: The SAT, flawed as it may be, is essential to broadening the diversity of college campuses across the country.

First, the good news: They got rid of the indecipherable analogies in the new SAT, so rest easy. And as to the drop in average scores on the SAT, well, they dropped, on the national average, 5 points and 2 points in reading and math, respectively. This isn't a major sea change, and is related to both the increased length of the test, that more people are taking the ACT, and that fewer people are taking it twice. None of these are intrinsically bad things, and the last one is probably good.

But, there is the bad news Asheesh mentions: Our collective cultural reaction to the SAT and other standardized tests, whether in the form of the test prep industry or the AP obsession, has hurt America's secondary education system. But before we throw out the baby with the bathwater, we have to stop and ask: Would getting rid of the SAT really help?

Asheesh says the SAT is supposed to gauge a person's ability to succeed in college. This is right--up to a point. The SAT was first widely used in 1933, when Harvard President James Conant wanted to find gifted students who weren't members of the White Protestant aristocracy; he wanted more students from different backgrounds to join the nation's elite. At the time, the test was designed to measure natural aptitude, though now it seeks to gauge reasoning ability and some basic knowledge. Since then, the ostensible purpose has been to give students who don't go to the best high schools the same chance to go to better colleges--and not just the Ivies, either, but any of the great undergraduate institutions around the country. The SAT isn't designed just to determine who is ready for college, but to find those who can handle college but didn't have the chance to prove it in their high schools.

With college competition becoming fiercer every year, people are, as always, looking for ways to game the system, hence test prep for the wealthy, or people who aren't naturally good at standardized tests. This isn't quite the equivalent of the bad old days, when the rich controlled access to college, but it's moving closer. Let's say we toss out the SATs--what then?

Do we turn to a European style system, where high school students undergo long, intensive, subject-focused exams? (Incidentally, European higher education is much less meritocratic than that of the U.S.) The American equivalents are the SAT II Subject Tests (which many colleges require), Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) exams--but all of these give an advantage to those who were taught in good schools, which is to say, the already advantaged. And there are even concerns that, as schools race to adopt the AP, the programs standards are lowered--and few educators like to teach to standardized subject tests. But, as Asheesh noted:

the [SAT] helps mitigate the disparities engendered by systemic inequalities in American secondary education. ...the exam's evaluation of 'reasoning skills' provides the fairest and most accurate prediction of how well a student will perform in the first year of college, since it tests the skills necessary for success in higher education no matter what area one concentrates upon.

So, in order to give the disadvantaged a chance, we're stuck with standardized tests like the SAT or the ACT. I'll concede that the tests don't necessarily test the kind of intensive critical thinking that college develops, but that's a skill that most students develop during college anyway. And testing that kind of critical thinking and analysis with, say, a thesis paper isn't something high schools can do. But drawing out the main points of a passage and writing a coherent essay do give admissions officers some idea of a student's analytical ability.

Asheesh's most damning argument--the test's prohibitive cost--is a true problem. But a group of activist colleges (many of whom already waive application fees from economically disadvantaged students) could fund an SAT test scholarship consortium. Or the government could take over Educational Testing Services--education is a public good, after all--and offer financial aid.

Why do colleges need SAT scores? They are the closest thing we have to an even competition for admissions. The real answer here is to work to reform our public education system and make public high schools across the country equal centers of real learning, giving colleges better chances to weigh the whole applicant. In the meantime, though, the SAT is the worst possible system--except for all the others.

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