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Three Hours on a Saturday Morning 

UC may drop the flawed SAT as an admission requirement. But are the other options any better?

Wednesday, Dec 10 1997
When Henry Chauncey entered Harvard in 1924, the Ivy League was dominated by a WASP aristocracy. Many of the students were wealthy young men who walked away from college after four years of heavy drinking with a prestigious degree and no particular work ethic. Chauncey, Ohio-bred and raised by Harvard-educated parents with a Midwestern feeling for fairness, was disgusted by what he saw.

Then an early standardized test showed that non-college-bound students in Pennsylvania high schools could earn higher scores than many of those WASP-ish college juniors. Chauncey was thrilled. He had found his career, and went on to become the first president of the Educational Testing Service. He saw standardized tests as a scientific way to sort students according to merit, rather than birthright, and threw himself into the young field of "psychometrics," the science behind IQ testing.

Chauncey was still president of the ETS when college applications shot up under the GI Bill after World War II. For the first time, colleges needed to rank large numbers of applicants. Standardized tests helped them do that, and Chauncey realized his early goal: The Eastern-seaboard WASP aristocracy was slowly replaced by members of an ambitious middle class.

California is the ETS's biggest customer. In no other state are so many students compelled to pay the company for so many entrance exams. The PSAT, SAT, GRE, GMAT, LSAT, MCAT -- all are written and administered by the ETS. So the whispered rumor that the University of California might scrap the SAT early next year is a hot one. Only it isn't quite true.

Still, the Board On Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS), a committee that makes decisions on eligibility criteria for the university system, may sit in the spring to consider making SAT scores an optional part of the UC application. The meeting would mark the first time since the regents made SAT scores mandatory in 1978 that the university has seriously considered changing its policy on standardized tests.

The direct reason for this shift is a report by the university's Latino Eligibility Task Force. In the wake of Regents' Resolution SP-1 -- the UC ban on race and gender preferences that led to the drop in minority enrollment this year at Berkeley's law school -- the task force reported on the eligibility of Latino students in California for the UC system. It concluded that the SAT was an illegitimate barrier to Latino admission, noting, "According to a simulation of eligibility relying only on Grade Point Average (GPA) requirements ... without aptitude test scores, the proportion of Latino high school graduates achieving eligibility would rise by 59 percent (from 3.9 to 6.2 percent)." It concluded, "The startling increase for Latinos illustrates the magnitude of the negative impact of the SAT on Latino student eligibility."

Policy arguments over the SAT have nothing to do with whether it measures intelligence. In fact, though the "A" in SAT once stood for "aptitude," since 1994 it has stood for "assessment." After companies like the Princeton Review and Kaplan showed they could raise students' scores through coaching, the whole idea that the SAT could

measure inborn ability had to be abandoned.
Whether the SAT predicts first-year college grades, though, remains in question. The ETS has reams of statistics showing it does. But marshalled against

them is another ream of statistics showing sharp differences between the scores earned by well-off and less well-off students, white and Asian students, black and Latino students, boys and girls. In fact, there are correspondences between test scores and income level, test scores and race, and test scores and gender that are statistically more significant than the correspondences between test scores and first-year grades.

According to most independent studies, the SAT's accuracy in predicting first-year college grades hovers around 30 percent, odds Ralph Nader once described as "a little better than throwing dice." The correspondence between family income and test scores has historically been as high as 80 percent. So choosing between scores of, say, 1100 and 1000 on the SAT is likely to amount to a decision based on class, not potential.

Such small gradations in SAT scores aren't meaningful anyway, critics charge. "When you're using the SAT as a big old sloppy paint brush, it's fine," says the Princeton Review's Paul Kanarek. "I'm going to argue that a kid who gets a 1400 combined on the SAT is probably going to do better than a kid who gets a 1000. I've got no objection there. But that's not how they use the test [at UC]."

Actually, the UC system makes fine distinctions based on test scores only among students with GPAs lower than 3.3, and then only among kids who apply to its most popular campuses -- UCLA and UC Berkeley. "If you have high school grades of 3.3 or above, all you have to do is take the SAT I and the SAT II to be eligible," says Keith Widaman, a UC professor and chairman of the BOARS committee. "Over 90 percent of the students we make eligible are eligible on that basis. So you can call that 'eligible by grades alone'; you simply have to take the test."

The university's main argument for using the test is that it has no other yardstick. Combined with high school GPA -- consistently the best single predictor of college performance -- SATscores improve, slightly, prediction of first-year grades.

Kris Zavoli is director of admissions and guidance for the Western Region of the College Board, the national group of colleges that hires the ETS to develop admissions exams. She says the SAT will only become more valuable to admissions offices at popular schools as a result of high school grade inflation. "You're probably aware of the statistics last year that Berkeley got 27,000 applications for the freshman class and 12,000 were 4.0's," she says. "They know that those aren't all real grades."

The most common suggestion for beating grade inflation is to weigh class rank, with the idea that the upper percentiles of any graduating class will consist of competitive, hard-working kids. Texas has tried this by making the top 10 percent of all graduating high school students eligible for the University of Texas system. The measure is meant to let kids compete within their own pool of peers, rather than pitting inner-city and rural students against kids in suburban schools.

"I think the byproduct of something like that would be to encourage kids to take the weakest possible courses, and to really seek out the less rigorous schools," says Zavoli. "In other words, I think you'd have an exodus from a place like Lowell [High School, a well-regarded school in San Francisco]. So you'd have less skill development, even though you'd have a higher GPA."

The Princeton Review's Kanarek isn't so pessimistic. He notes, "That's a legitimate question, but I don't think parents have ever tried to force their kids into doing less. For example, I don't think you'd see a Beverly Hills High School parent putting his kid [into a weaker school]."

Nearly 300 colleges across the country already have some method of admitting students without looking at test scores. One of them is Lewis and Clark, a small liberal arts college in Portland, Ore. Six years ago the college opened a "portfolio path" in its admissions process for students who either can't or don't want to report their scores. A "portfolio" consists of a transcript, a sample of a student's best high school coursework, especially graded writing, and three teacher recommendations. (The normal application requires only one.)

"If they do all of that stuff, they have the option of having their high school suppress the standardized test," says Mike Sexton, Lewis and Clark's dean of admissions. "We have usually no more than 3 percent of the applicant pool taking advantage of the portfolio path, and of them, most of them give us their SATs anyway."

He says portfolios are good predictors of success in college for the simple reason that past work is the best indicator of what a student will go on doing.

"It's much more compatible with what a student's going to be faced with. Nobody's going to come here and take a three-hour multiple-choice test in any class they have. I oftentimes will tell parents the extremes on the score thing, where last year the highest we rejected was a 1510 -- she had an abysmal record. That's maybe great potential, but that's not who we'd like to have walking into class.

"At the other end we admitted a young lady with a 710. She was valedictorian of her tribal high school in Montana, and her first language was Crow, and she got a scholarship to do a year in a prep school in Massachusetts, and she had a year of A-minus work there. So I'm not worried about that three hours on a Saturday morning."

The only way a smart Crow student with a low SAT score could get into the University of California until recently would have been through affirmative action -- and, in fact, many early court victories for affirmative action were born of biases in standardized exams.

Frankly, not much is left of Henry Chauncey's vision of standardized testing as scientific savior of the American dream. But the industry is thriving, in part because the University of California requires thousands of students to pay for a test it doesn't need to consider 90 percent of the time.

The BOARS committee's first chore in the spring will be to look at recent numbers from the SAT and decide, for itself, whether the exam is a fair and accurate predictor of first-year grades. Real change will probably have to wait for a realistic alternative to standardized testing, and until then, Chauncey's run is likely to continue.


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