The profit motive and the SAT

When it comes to standardized tests, one thing is for sure — they never please everyone. No test proves that point better than the mother of all standardized exams, the College Board’s SAT.

In recent years, the SAT has been called everything from discriminatory to outdated to useless. Small colleges, including many members of the Ivy League, have openly de-emphasized the SAT in admissions decisions. Now the University of California — the country’s largest public university system — has become the most vocal of the SAT’s detractors, claiming that the test does an inadequate job of measuring applicants’ mastery of high school subject material and predicting the success of students once in college.

UC President Richard Atkinson has even proposed that his college system no longer require applicants to take the SAT and threatened to devise a rival test, one which he says would better demonstrate a student’s ability to excel in college.

But unlike its silent reaction to previous denunciations of its prize product, the College Board announced last week that it will review the test and make several significant changes. It singled out three potential reforms: the creation of a writing section, the addition of trigonometry and advanced algebra to the math section, and the elimination of the analogies section.

The SAT is far from perfect. In fact, it could very well use a healthy dose of reform. But the changes proposed by the College Board appear to be more of a thinly veiled means of retaining the company’s biggest and most profitable program than a move toward creating a truly better test for college applicants.

Atkinson has criticized the SAT’s inability to measure the amount of learning applicants have amassed during high school. The proposal to include more advanced math — which can be learned in high school — and to eliminate analogies — which are rarely taught in the classroom –Êseems to be a direct response to UC criticism. The move appears to be just an effort to keep the UC’s business.

Furthermore, the changes would only exacerbate existing inequalities in the test.

Emphasizing skills learned in the classroom would disadvantage students who may have strong intuitive mathematical abilities but have attended high schools that don’t teach trigonometry or advanced algebra until senior year. In other words, the test would take another step away from its conception as a reasoning test and favor those who can afford better preparation.

If the College Board is truly serious about improving the SAT, it should conduct a broad survey drawing from the expertise and experience of education groups, testing experts and college admissions offices. And naturally, it should perhaps consider eliminating the test altogether, a move recommended by some prominent education professors around the nation.

Above all, the College Board should remember that it will have a market only as long as the SAT remains a relevant tool for analyzing applicants. Tailoring the test to one school may save profits in the short run, but it will only hurt over the long haul.

Comments