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TEST CASE: UC Versus the SAT

The biggest change in the SAT's history may occur because the test's largest user bullied the College Board.

April 07, 2002|MATTHEW BELLONI | Matthew Belloni is Notes editor of the Southern California Law Review at USC Law School and a former Opinion editor of the Daily Californian at UC Berkeley.

The University of California may have accomplished a task not possible in 30 years of education reform: convincing the test-making wizards at the College Board to radically overhaul their most hallowed and feared exam, the SAT I.

And we can follow the money to figure out why.

The nine-campus, 130,000-undergraduate UC system is the largest and most prestigious public university in the country, so when its president and regents began discussing how to eliminate the SAT and replace it with a test that more accurately reflects what is taught in the classroom, the College Board took notice.

UC President Richard C. Atkinson, in a bold speech last year, said he does not believe the current SAT evaluates what California students are taught in K-12 classrooms. He went on to recommend that the UCs should "require only standardized tests that assess mastery of specific subject areas rather than undefined notions of 'aptitude' or 'intelligence.'" He suggested that applicants should no longer be required to take the SAT I. Earlier this year, acting on Atkinson's suggestions, the UC Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools proposed dropping the SAT in favor of a core exam that would include a writing portion and test material taught in classes that make up the course requirements for UC.

Rather than lose its biggest client, the East Coast testing organization has taken swift action. Recently, fewer than 10 days after the regents discussed the possibility of switching to a new exam, College Board President Gaston Caperton announced that the company is considering major adjustments to the SAT, including possibly trimming or removing the analogy section and adding a writing portion. College Board officials are even working directly with UC to develop a new exam to reflect its concerns. The biggest change in the SAT's history may occur because the largest user of the test has flexed its collective muscle to bully the College Board into adopting its preferred rules.

"To the extent that this is anything but a business decision, the rest is just ornamental," said Jay Rosner, executive director of the Princeton Review Foundation, the public-interest arm of the huge test preparation company. "You have a business, and a client that represents 15% of your business is telling you your product isn't working. You want revenues to drop 15%? You want to lay off 15% of your workforce?"

The ethics of the College Board's sudden courtship of UC seem questionable on both sides. Atkinson's commendable goal is to craft an exam that better rewards students who pay attention in high school, eventually elevating the level of K-12 learning to meet the standards of the new test. Yet instead of engaging in a national dialogue with testing companies and other prominent education officials, the UC system has threatened to pull out of the SAT if its demands are not met, essentially grabbing the reins in any negotiations to come.

College Board officials claim the changes currently on the table are part of the evolving nature of the test, which underwent revisions in 1993 and 1994 . Yet the timing of its decision is fairly transparent. "UC is their biggest customer. If it wants changes, it can order changes," said author Nicholas Lemann, a proponent of Atkinson's ideas and the author of "The Big Test," a critical history of the SAT. "To keep UC, the College Board will make the changes it wants."

The College Board is a member organization representing more than 4,000 colleges, universities and high schools. Its board of trustees, which includes representatives from schools nationwide, voted late last month to form a commission to discuss the issue. Any proposed changes to the SAT will wind their way through committees and be discussed extensively among the member schools, and Caperton himself recently sent an e-mail to the trustees warning of a looming debate on the issue. Yet, so far, the testing service has met only with UC policymakers, and their concerns seem to be driving the debate. If there exists any serious opposition to the most major changes in the SAT's history, it has yet to be voiced publicly by a university leader.

According to Kris Zavoli, a College Board official who has participated in the first meetings with UC, no changes will occur until the new test wins widespread support. "We have 4,000 members and we will take the proposal to different audiences," she said. "We won't make any changes until the full membership looks at this." But unless policy boards at other schools are brought into the debate now, the board of trustees will be presented with a document designed largely to appease UC, and this may not be in the best interests of schools nationwide.

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