UC President Richard C. Atkinson wants to eliminate the SAT as a requirement for admission to all eight of the university's undergraduate campuses, saying the test is unfair to many students and fails to measure how much they learned in high school.
Calling such a change "long overdue," Atkinson, in a speech on Sunday, will call on the University of California to discontinue using the SAT within two years. He wants each campus to develop a more "holistic" approach to selecting students, looking at achievements and potential for success that might not show up on standardized tests.
But UC campuses, which turn away many applicants, still need a common measure to compare students from different high schools, given varying levels of grade inflation, he said.
So Atkinson is challenging test makers to come up with a new test that would be directly tied to college preparatory courses rather than to what he considers "an ill-defined measure of aptitude or intelligence" like the SAT.
"Minority communities go off the deep end when they talk about the SAT. I think they have good reason," Atkinson said in an interview. "It's a mystery what the SAT measures and why their kids don't do as well as other kids."
Atkinson's proposal, which would need the approval of the UC faculty's academic council and the UC Board of Regents, is to be unveiled at a Washington, D.C., meeting of the American Council on Education, an association of leading colleges and universities. One regent, a supporter of Atkinson's idea, said Friday that she expects it to get a warm reception from her colleagues on the board.
But the speech is likely to stoke the superheated debate over the SAT, the three-hour test that takes on a larger-than-life role as a stumbling block or stepping stone to the nation's most selective colleges and universities.
As word of Atkinson's proposal leaked out Friday, the idea drew praise and criticism.
Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, which owns the test, said the SAT--used in concert with grades and admissions essays--is the fairest way to select a student body.
"We've been trying to make it fair for the past 75 years and doing a pretty good job with it," Caperton said. "If any unfairness pops up in test scores, it's simply a measure of an unfair school system that remains uneven in the preparation of students for the SAT and college."
But Regent Sherry Lansing, a former schoolteacher who is now chairwoman of Paramount Pictures and a strong force on the Board of Regents, said she was delighted by Atkinson's move. She said she expects many fellow regents to like the idea as well.
"It's horrendous to think you can have a student who gets straight A's and not get into the University of California because of one bad test day," Lansing said. "I think there has been an overemphasis on standardized tests and an under-emphasis on grades and a student's motivation."
Lee C. Bollinger, president of the University of Michigan, called Atkinson's proposal a "courageous move."
"To have one of the most prominent university systems in the world abandon such a well-worn test says something about the challenges to the validity of the SAT as a predictor of college success, as well as to its fairness," Bollinger said.
In recent years, a growing number of small liberal arts colleges have decided to make the SAT optional.
But this would be the first such decision by a major university system.
California students make up the largest group of SAT-takers, 156,000 out of the 1.3 million college-bound seniors who took it last year, or 12%.
Given that at least half of these students apply to UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC Irvine or other popular campuses, making the SAT optional could result in a dramatic drop in the number of test takers. (The test has always been optional for admission to the California State University system.)
Atkinson said he expects to come under "severe attack" for his proposal because "there's a lot of money at stake here."
In his speech to his colleagues across the country he puts it this way:
"In many ways, we are caught up in the educational equivalent of a nuclear arms race. We know that this overemphasis on test scores hurts all involved, especially students. But we also know that anyone or any institution opting out of the competition does so at considerable risk."
Atkinson, 71, a cognitive psychologist, did not come to this decision lightly. He has been studying learning and memory throughout his career. His credentials as a testing expert are extensive.
He was the founding chairman of the National Research Council's Board on Testing and Assessment and was once a distinguished visiting scholar at the Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT for the College Board.