Richard Atkinson has had enough of the SAT. And he’s doing something about it.

As the president of the University of California system, Atkinson oversees institutions that receive more standardized test scores than anyone else in the nation. His assessment of the quality of such tests therefore deserves serious attention.

Atkinson’s opinion of the SAT I — he believes the test to be so flawed that the University of California should no longer require applicants to take it — flies in the face of years of conventional wisdom among college admissions officers, who generally believe the test helps them weigh applicants’ academic potential, especially their likely first-year grades.

In a speech at the American Council on Education’s annual meeting in Washington, he said the SAT I does “not have a demonstrable relationship to the student’s program of study — a problem that is amplified when the tests are assumed to measure innate ability.”

Atkinson proposed a plan to make the SAT I optional for classes entering in 2003 and beyond, relying for now on students’ scores on SAT II achievement tests in writing, math and a third subject of their choice. UC schools already require the three SAT IIs.

Even more bold, he said he hopes to soon replace the SAT IIs with a new test the UC system will create. The SAT IIs measure actual subject mastery better than the vague skills covered by the SAT I, Atkinson said, but he thinks his system can design tests more closely correlated to students’ college preparatory work.

Although his plan could do great things for the UC system, it could also cause more harm than good. Let’s examine the possible effects, starting with potential benefits.

For starters, it will save students a great deal of money. Students pay $24 to take the SAT I. Multiplied by the thousands of applicants each year to UC schools, that adds up.

Second, academically-talented students with poor SAT I scores may decide to apply rather than give up in advance. Liberal arts colleges such as Bates and Franklin & Marshall, as well as Oregon’s state university system, have seen applications as a whole go up after making the SAT I optional. “Non-submitters” gain admission at lower rates than applicants who do send their scores, but those admitted perform as well if not better than the “submitters.”

Students knowing they need not take the SAT I will choose not to waste time and money on SAT prep courses, which distract from real learning and give white, rich students an advantage in admissions competitions.

Finally, those who believe standardized tests like the SAT I underrepresent the academic strengths of women and ethnic minorities will also believe that de-emphasizing such tests will lower the barriers these students face in attaining higher education.

Now the problems:

SAT-optional admissions have been used as a smoke and mirrors technique to artificially enhance a school’s reputation. Such policies tend to increase applications, to increase a school’s ability to reject applicants (making it more selective), and to boost its median SAT score by removing lower-scoring students from the average and to increase the “yield” of admitted students who matriculate (“non-submitters” have fewer alternatives because of their lower SAT scores). All this does wonders for a U.S. News ranking without truly improving a school’s academics.

Black students and other ethnic minorities tend to perform poorly on the SAT relative to whites. While some blame biased questions, realizing that the disparity for blacks is slightly greater for the SAT I Math (104 points) than for the SAT I Verbal (94 points) suggests other conclusions.

Removing the SAT hides a host of problems — blacks generally attend inferior public schools, they can’t afford the same test prep services, their parents have less education, etc. — without taking measures to solve them. The racial score gap demands we improve the educational access of all Americans, not ignore traditional measures of merit.

Also, Atkinson defended his plan by saying UC must remember “it serves the most racially and ethnically diverse college-going population in the nation.”

This may be true. But the voters of California ended affirmative action at the state’s public universities in a referendum. Making the SAT I optional provides UC with a clever way to admit students otherwise “unqualified” according to previous meritocratic standards. While Atkinson may never have considered this effect of his plan, UC will be seen as defying the law if it does not actually create the new test Atkinson has proposed and adhere to equal standards for all applicants.

The SAT has serious problems, and Atkinson’s decision — if approved by UC’s regents — will encourage the Educational Testing Service to improve its tests and spur colleges to reconsider the weight they give to flawed measures of merit. The eyes of American higher education, and of students, will be on California’s experiment.

Ben Trachtenberg is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. His columns appear on alternate Tuesdays.