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Executives Give Low Grade to Standardized Tests

Education: In survey, only 4% say SATs are important in predicting success in business.


Business executives put little stock in the ability of standardized tests such as the SAT to predict success in business, according to a survey released Thursday by the National Urban League.

The survey, consisting of interviews with 200 top executives at Fortune 500 companies, found that just 4% of respondents considered standardized tests important to long-term success.

Asked what traits they favored in job candidates, the executives placed far more importance on such subjective qualities as leadership, grit, integrity and communication skills.

The Urban League survey comes as the SAT's value is being heatedly debated nationwide. UC President Richard C. Atkinson set off the latest round in February, when he called for the elimination of the test as a requirement for admission to the UC system, saying it is unfair.

The survey shows that SAT scores "shouldn't carry the determinative weight they do now" in college admissions, said Hugh B. Price, president of the National Urban League.

"The experience in the real world says that a number of people who don't test spectacularly will perform spectacularly," he said.

Questioning the ability of standardized test scores to predict students' success is not new. But the debate has grown in recent years as the elimination of affirmative action has heralded dramatic drops in the number of blacks and Latinos at top universities. The average scores of black and Latino students on the SAT lag behind those of whites and Asians.

Some universities have sought alternative ways to balance various admissions criteria in response to the criticism. A Harvard researcher has designed a test that seeks to measure more indeterminate qualities in applicants--their ability to lead a productive group discussion in current issues, for example.

So far, "we know the results are not correlated at all with SAT [scores]," said the researcher, Deborah Bial.

At its news conference in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, the Urban League released a letter signed by seven executives who were among the survey respondents, including Ken Lewis, chairman and CEO-elect of Bank of America, and Steven L. Miller, chairman and CEO of Shell Oil Co.

The letter, which has been sent to 700 college and university presidents, calls for attributes such as creativity to be weighed more heavily in college admissions. "Overemphasis on the SAT is harming American education," the letter asserts.

Responding to the criticism, the College Board, which owns the test, defended the test's predictive powers--to a point.

The SAT does not measure the kinds of character and leadership traits valued by business executives, nor is it meant to, said Wayne Camara, the board's vice president of research and development.

Rather, the SAT, combined with high school grade-point averages, remains "the single best predictor of success in college, not just in the freshman year but . . . throughout college," Camara said, adding that, "hundreds and thousands" of studies have been done to evaluate the predictive abilities of the test.

In addition, College Board spokeswoman Chiara Coletti emphasized that the board advocates balanced admissions policies in which test scores are just one of many measures.

"We applaud the Urban League for advocating for the same holistic approach," she said. "They are right. The SAT and the ACT [another standardized test] don't measure leadership skills and character. They were never designed to."

The Urban League last fall commissioned social and market research firm DYC Inc. to conduct the survey and ensure its objectivity.

In the survey, the business executives interviewed rated "character"--defined as integrity, determination, grit, the ability to overcome obstacles--as the No. 1 trait for success in business. It was cited by 91% of respondents.

"Communication skills" and "leadership" followed closely, cited by 88% and 76% of respondents, respectively.

Only 26% of respondents said the current level of emphasis on SAT and ACT scores in college admissions is appropriate, and 27% said "much less weight" should be put on test scores.

The executives surveyed tended to downplay the importance of educational background in general: Only 20% said grades in college were "extremely important," and 23% said advanced degrees were.

Atkinson declined to comment on the Urban League survey.

There remains little agreement on alternatives to the SAT. Business executives in the survey said they favored interviews as the best way to screen people for desired qualities.

But Camara, of the College Board, said interviews are problematic, since studies have shown them to be one of the least valuable predictors of success on the job.

Price, though, believes real-world measures should be given more credence in college admissions. Perhaps the best measure of admissions criteria would be to "check [students'] W-2 forms 20 years later," he said.

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