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Dropping the SATs Is an Excuse to Drop Standards

February 25, 2001|VIRGINIA POSTREL | Virginia Postrel, editor-at-large of Reason magazine, is the author of "The Future and Its Enemies" (1998, Free Press)

University of California president Richard C. Atkinson's call to drop the SAT as an admissions standard is just another way to retain racial preferences--even if it means losing objective measures of academic achievement for all applicants.

Atkinson's epiphany came, he said, when he saw 12-year-olds in an elite private school "studying long lists of verbal analogies such as 'untruthful is to mendaciousness' as 'circumspect is to caution.' " What exactly is wrong with learning the meanings of these words and how they relate to each other? It would be nice if everyone liked to read, but learning analogies by rote is better than not learning them at all. The problem isn't that 12 year olds in private schools are practicing analogies. It's that most public schools would never even consider teaching such difficult material to 12-year-olds.

Atkinson also worries about an "arms race" of test-preparation classes. That arms race is indeed a bit creepy. But the alternative is to drop all standardized tests. After all, subject-based "achievement tests" will produce the same pathologies. Ambitious parents will send their kids to special coaching, just as kids in Japan go to cram schools.

Atkinson declares that "the strength of American society has been its belief that actual achievement should be what matters most," so "students should be judged on what they have accomplished during four years of high school, taking into account their opportunities." This sounds good, but it's an excuse to drop standards of achievement--what people actually know--in favor of standards of character. We don't apply Atkinson's definition of "achievement" to athletes or artists.

The SAT is not perfect. We all know smart, knowledgeable people who do badly on standardized tests. But neither is it useless. SAT scores do measure both specific knowledge and valuable thinking skills. For a social scientist like Atkinson to advocate throwing away relevant data is extraordinary.

Atkinson says he wants to tie admissions tests more closely to the high school curriculum, so that anyone in any high school, no matter how crummy, can score well. Instead of raising high school quality, this will bind the UCs to the quality of the state's worst secondary school.

And some kids are still bound to do better than others, even if they all meet a minimum standard. The top eighth of California high school graduates are already guaranteed admission to a UC. The only question is whether you can favor the high scorers with admission to Berkeley and UCLA. Changing the test doesn't remove that problem.

Atkinson's agenda isn't just to drop a single, flawed test. It's to greatly reduce the importance of all objective measures. He wants the UC campuses to "move away from admissions processes that use quantitative formulas"--i.e. that consistently factor SAT scores and grades into admissions decisions--and "instead look at applicants in a comprehensive, holistic way" where qualitative factors matter much more.

The result would be a process more like Harvard's, in which admissions officers have broad discretion to decide who has the right stuff. As the Harvard Web site says, "high marks do not guarantee admission . . . we look at more than just grades: energy, initiative, the support of teachers and counselors, evidence that a student will take advantage of what Harvard offers . . . high test scores are no guarantee of admission and low scores do not necessarily mean exclusion. Some students with 'perfect' scores are not admitted while other students who may have more modest scores are." In other words, a Harvard applicant has no idea of his or her chances.

There are two problems with applying this sort of process to giant state universities. The first is scale. How holistic can you be when you're accepting more students than Harvard has applicants? The second is the difference between public and private institutions. Public institutions have a greater duty to avoid arbitrarily indulging the tastes of their admissions officers. De-emphasizing tests that put everyone on the same rating scale makes arbitrariness more likely.

Atkinson all but admits that his proposal is an attempt to circumvent Proposition 209, citing the need to be mindful that the UC system "serves the most racially and ethnically diverse college-going population in the nation." He says that "because California's college-age population will grow by 50% over the next decade and become even more diverse than it is today, additional steps must be taken now to ensure that tests scores are kept in proper perspective."

Having more applicants means it's better to make decisions with less information? That doesn't add up, regardless of your math scores.

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