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UC Faculty Chief Backs Dropping SAT as Unfair

Regents will decide whether to enact the proposal, and several appear to support it.

February 18, 2001|KENNETH R. WEISS | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

The leader of the University of California's faculty on Saturday threw his support behind dropping the SAT as an admission requirement because he says it is an unfair measure of students' abilities.

Michael Cowan, chairman of the faculty's Academic Assembly, said he supports UC President Richard C. Atkinson's proposal to drop the SAT and said the matter will get a "sympathetic hearing" from academic senators who must review it.

Members of the UC Board of Regents, who ultimately must decide whether to enact the proposal, were a bit more circumspect. But several said they were likely to defer to the faculty judgment and Atkinson's leadership.

"The president lays out a good case for changing the test to make it fair," said Regent Sue Johnson, chairwoman of the board. "This is his field: testing and cognitive science. I think the regents will listen to him."

Atkinson will formally unveil his proposal today in Washington, D.C., before the leaders of 1,800 major colleges and universities that belong to the American Council on Education.

He wants UC Irvine, UC Berkeley, UCLA and five other campuses to drop the SAT for the freshman class enrolling in the fall of 2003. Those undergraduate campuses should develop a more "holistic" approach to weighing students' accomplishments, factoring in whatever special opportunities or hurdles each student faced, he said.

Moreover, he is issuing a challenge to test-makers to come up with a better standardized test that would be substituted for the SAT. He wants one that is directly tied to subject matter in college preparatory classes, rather than attempting to measure some vague notions of "aptitude" for college or "innate intelligence," as the SAT was designed to do.

"Students don't know how to study for the SAT," he said, noting that instead they shell out $100 million a year in classes to improve test-taking skills. "We need a test for a kid who will do well because he has mastered algebra and English in high school."

Bob Schaeffer, education director of FairTest, a nonprofit organization that monitors testing, said he expected Atkinson's proposal to accelerate the burgeoning movement of colleges to make the SAT optional.

"It will have legs," said Schaeffer, who advocates less emphasis on standardized tests. "To have the president of what's widely regarded as the biggest and best university system to come out this way, well, it's a major stride forward."

UC Regent Ward Connerly said he will withhold judgment on the SAT issue. Connerly, who orchestrated a ban on affirmative action, said he will remain vigilant to make sure nothing is done to lower the caliber of UC students or reinstate "by proxy" any preferences for race or ethnicity.

Regent William T. Bagley said he would defer to Atkinson's expertise, as should his colleagues. "When you have a major proposal by the president, who has a professional staff that has studied the matter, and enlisted the faculty to study the matter, the board should approve it."

The idea seemed an instant hit with some UC students--not because of bad experiences with the test, but because they considered the test of marginal value.

"I don't believe that the SAT proves you are good enough for college," said Ophelia Lee, a physiology science major at UCLA. "I don't think it's a measure of intelligence, either."

She liked the idea of connecting an entrance exam with the material of college prep classes. "You cannot really study for the SAT," she said. "If it was based on subjects you studied in school, I'd probably have studied harder."

Mike Henley, a UCLA biology major, said the SAT is unfair to some minority students and those who cannot afford classes on test-taking tricks.

About 90% of the nation's colleges and universities rely on the SAT for admissions decisions.

But some college leaders have been troubled by aspects of the test, including the fairness of an exam that shows a persistent racial gap in average test scores. Whites and Asian American students do much better on average than Latino and African American students.

Leaders of the College Board, which owns the test, and the Educational Testing Service, which administers it, say the only unfairness reflected in test scores is the nation's unequal educational system.

Joseph P. Allen, a trustee of the College Board and USC's vice provost of enrollment, said he finds it ironic that UC officials want to dump the SAT after years of giving it far too much influence in the selection of students.

He is particularly intrigued with Atkinson's idea of adopting a more holistic approach to picking students--a practice used by elite private colleges and universities. In addition to grades and test scores, those schools consider extracurricular activities and letters of recommendation, and conduct face-to-face interviews.

"It's ironic that the largest public university in the country, which has been wholly dependent on standardized tests, is trying to turn the whole thing around."

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