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Circle the Best Answer: The SAT (a) Is a Useful Admissions Tool, (b) Doesn't Work

February 25, 2001|SANDY BANKS

She watches them drop off to sleep on the sofa in her high school office and knows they will wake up racked with guilt because they just "wasted" a free period--one that could have been used to study vocabulary lists or practice test-taking tricks they've been told will boost their SAT scores.

She knows that many of her students spend their weekends, what should be leisure time, locked in test-prep classes, doing math drills and studying word analogies.

So Marilyn Colyar, head of college counseling at San Marino High, is--like many thousands of students, parents and educators--watching with more than a little interest to see what becomes of a provocative proposal to transform the admissions process at the nation's largest university system by scrapping the use of the SAT.

The plan, by UC President Richard C. Atkinson, would eliminate the SAT as a requirement for admission to the eight UC campuses, beginning with the freshman class of 2003. It needs the approval of the university's faculty academic council and the UC Board of Regents, but observers say it has a good chance of passage, given Atkinson's credentials as both an educator and an expert in testing.

In announcing his proposal, Atkinson characterized universities' reliance on SAT scores as "the educational equivalent of a nuclear arms race." No school wants to back down and lose the competitive edge, even though "we know that overemphasis on test scores hurts . . . students."

You don't have to tell that to Colyar, who sends about one-third of her graduating seniors to UC campuses each year. "I wouldn't cry if [the SAT] were done away with. It would take the pressure off these kids, let them know that you do not have to have a 4.5 [GPA] and a [perfect] 1,600 SAT score.

"They get so caught up in this, they're like little automatons," she said. "You just want to tell them, 'Go out and take a ride on your bicycle or hike the mountains or read a good book. Those things help prepare you for college too."

*

Since the 1930s, universities have been using SAT scores as a sort of intelligence test, to assess applicants' basic aptitude for college. But in recent years, studies have shown that SAT scores predict little about a student's prospects for success. The scores correlate to freshman-year grades, but their predictive value drops year by year, until they are virtually meaningless.

Still, in a culture obsessed with measurement, the importance of SAT scores has been magnified in the increasingly competitive world of college admissions, making them a sort of gatekeeper to higher education for many kids.

Almost half of the nation's high school seniors take the test each year. And while a growing number of liberal arts colleges have stopped requiring the SAT, more than 85% of the nation's four-year colleges still rely heavily on the scores, along with grades, in their admissions decisions. That has given rise to a burgeoning test prep business, which raked in $100 million last year.

"We hear kids all the time saying they can't do this or that on the weekend, because 'I've got to go to my test prep class,' " says Betty Zavala, college counselor at Whitney High in Cerritos, one of the state's top-ranked high schools.

"No matter what you tell parents and students about how this is just one test, one sitting, it's not the pinnacle of their education; there's still a lot of stock put in those numbers."

*

While Atkinson was making his pitch in Washington, D.C., last weekend before college officials from across the nation, former UC Berkeley Admissions Director Bob Laird was in Seattle at the western regional conference of the College Board, which owns and administers the test.

There, the news hit like a bomb. "It was the talk of the conference," said Laird. Admissions officials are about to begin their annual round of college fairs, introducing their schools to prospective students. "They know the first question out of a student's mouth for the next several months is going to be, "So I don't have to take the SAT anymore, right?"

For many admissions officials, scrapping the SAT seems a bit like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. For all the angst it provokes and all the controversy it evokes, it is still considered useful as one objective measure that allows colleges to evaluate students from across the country and for students to see how they stack up against one another.

Laird favors the kind of holistic admissions process Atkinson wants. In fact, before he retired in 1999, he helped develop such a system at UC Berkeley. Now, the university gives less weight to SAT scores and more to how well students have taken advantage of the educational opportunities they've had.

Still, he said, it's impossible to ignore the influence of the SAT and disingenuous to think that dumping the test will change the landscape of college admissions.

Reliance on testing "has become part of the culture, and it's hard to resist," Laird argues. "We can't assume that getting rid of the SAT will solve this high anxiety among students and parents. . . . The problem is not the test, it's that universities have put so much emphasis on it. That's what needs to change."

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