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College Board Scores With Critics of SAT Analogies

July 27, 2003|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

The SAT is to college admission ...

" ... As a root canal is to a dentist?" said Peter Lee, 16. He and several other weary-looking high school students had just emerged from a four-hour SAT prep class in Glendale.

"As a root canal is to a patient?" suggested Emin Gharibian, 17.

Neither of those worked for Anthony Kwon, 16. "As a root canal is to pain," he said.

Pain is typically the refrain when college-bound youngsters jaw about the SAT. But some relief is coming. This month, University of California regents approved plans for a revamped SAT that would eliminate its long-maligned analogy section, after more than 70 years of torturing the correlation-challenged.

UC President Richard Atkinson had railed against the analogies, which account for 19 of the SAT's 72 verbal questions, as a memory drill that measured little of a student's potential. He threatened to scrap the SAT as a UC requirement unless the test makers replaced the multiple-choice analogies with reading comprehension questions, added a writing exercise and expanded the math portion.

The College Board, the New York-based firm that owns the SAT, gave Atkinson what he wanted. And no wonder: UC is to the board as General Motors is to U.S. Steel -- a huge customer. The analogies will disappear in 2005.

"I'm extremely pleased," Atkinson said. "I always just hated the verbal analogies. There was just a trickiness to them."

Amy Schmidt, the College Board's executive director for educational research, agreed.

"They're puzzle-like.... They don't really test anything you learn in school," she said. "I'm not heartbroken that they are going."

But she also said the analogies assess reasoning skills, helping the SAT as a whole to identify promising students.

"The SAT is to college admission as an NCAA scholarship is to the big leagues," Schmidt said. "It's not a guarantee, but it's a step in the right direction."

Not according to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, which contends that the SAT is biased against lower-income students and those for whom English is a second language. As evidence, center public education director Robert Schaeffer cited several analogy questions from over the years, including this one, since deleted:

RUNNER: MARATHON ::

A) envoy: embassy

B) martyr: massacre

C) oarsman: regatta

D) referee: tournament

E) horse: stable

The answer was C.

"That's incredibly culturally centered," Schaeffer said. "You don't see a regatta in center-city L.A., you don't see it in Appalachia, you don't see it in New Mexico."

Among the other analogy words Schaeffer slammed were "pirouette" and "hack," as in writer. "Is 'pirouette' a word most high schoolers would use?" he said. "And 'hack' used to be associated with cabs."

He likened the SAT to a trivia test.

That's too harsh, said George Mills, vice president for enrollment at the University of Puget Sound. He argued against ditching the analogies while serving as a College Board trustee last year.

"It's disappointing to see them go," he said.

Mills said the questions reflect the practice of drawing analogies that college professors frequently employ in their lectures. He also praised the SAT analogies' dependence on words rooted in Latin, the moribund language he believes should be resurrected as standard high school curriculum.

"I'm old-school," he said.

This isn't the first time the College Board has tossed the analogies. It scratched them in 1930, four years after the SAT's debut, then restored them in 1936.

The SAT's history is rife with critic-driven tinkering. In 1994, the board got rid of an antonym segment, because it had encouraged students to memorize endless lists of words.

Detractors even forced changes to the SAT's name, with a result that has few analogies. The acronym once stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test. But "aptitude" was judged an elitist label -- implying innate abilities above which students could not rise. It was replaced with "assessment," which got the boot nearly a decade ago as a redundancy to "test."

So "SAT" is an empty acronym. It no longer is to the test's full moniker as FBI is to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

"But please don't say it means nothing," said Schmidt, laughing nervously.

By any name, the SAT is often the target of complaints that material like the analogies can be professionally coached. Many say that gives an edge to students whose parents can afford tutors and prep courses.

"As soon as you start exposing some kids to the methods behind the questions, there start to be unfair advantages," said Larry Berger, an educational software executive who is coauthor of a cheeky SAT study guide, "Up Your Score."

Berger said that as a student, he tallied a 1580 on the SAT, 20 points shy of perfect, and aced the analogies. He told of sleuthing for patterns to answers to boost his chances of guessing right on questions that flummoxed him.

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