Three Hours on a Saturday Morning

UC may drop the flawed SAT as an admission requirement. But are the other options any better?

When Henry Chauncey entered Harvard in 1924, the Ivy League was dominated by a WASP aristocracy. Many of the students were wealthy young men who walked away from college after four years of heavy drinking with a prestigious degree and no particular work ethic. Chauncey, Ohio-bred and raised by Harvard-educated parents with a Midwestern feeling for fairness, was disgusted by what he saw.

Then an early standardized test showed that non-college-bound students in Pennsylvania high schools could earn higher scores than many of those WASP-ish college juniors. Chauncey was thrilled. He had found his career, and went on to become the first president of the Educational Testing Service. He saw standardized tests as a scientific way to sort students according to merit, rather than birthright, and threw himself into the young field of "psychometrics," the science behind IQ testing.

Chauncey was still president of the ETS when college applications shot up under the GI Bill after World War II. For the first time, colleges needed to rank large numbers of applicants. Standardized tests helped them do that, and Chauncey realized his early goal: The Eastern-seaboard WASP aristocracy was slowly replaced by members of an ambitious middle class.

California is the ETS's biggest customer. In no other state are so many students compelled to pay the company for so many entrance exams. The PSAT, SAT, GRE, GMAT, LSAT, MCAT -- all are written and administered by the ETS. So the whispered rumor that the University of California might scrap the SAT early next year is a hot one. Only it isn't quite true.

Still, the Board On Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS), a committee that makes decisions on eligibility criteria for the university system, may sit in the spring to consider making SAT scores an optional part of the UC application. The meeting would mark the first time since the regents made SAT scores mandatory in 1978 that the university has seriously considered changing its policy on standardized tests.

The direct reason for this shift is a report by the university's Latino Eligibility Task Force. In the wake of Regents' Resolution SP-1 -- the UC ban on race and gender preferences that led to the drop in minority enrollment this year at Berkeley's law school -- the task force reported on the eligibility of Latino students in California for the UC system. It concluded that the SAT was an illegitimate barrier to Latino admission, noting, "According to a simulation of eligibility relying only on Grade Point Average (GPA) requirements ... without aptitude test scores, the proportion of Latino high school graduates achieving eligibility would rise by 59 percent (from 3.9 to 6.2 percent)." It concluded, "The startling increase for Latinos illustrates the magnitude of the negative impact of the SAT on Latino student eligibility."

Policy arguments over the SAT have nothing to do with whether it measures intelligence. In fact, though the "A" in SAT once stood for "aptitude," since 1994 it has stood for "assessment." After companies like the Princeton Review and Kaplan showed they could raise students' scores through coaching, the whole idea that the SAT could

measure inborn ability had to be abandoned.
Whether the SAT predicts first-year college grades, though, remains in question. The ETS has reams of statistics showing it does. But marshalled against

them is another ream of statistics showing sharp differences between the scores earned by well-off and less well-off students, white and Asian students, black and Latino students, boys and girls. In fact, there are correspondences between test scores and income level, test scores and race, and test scores and gender that are statistically more significant than the correspondences between test scores and first-year grades.

According to most independent studies, the SAT's accuracy in predicting first-year college grades hovers around 30 percent, odds Ralph Nader once described as "a little better than throwing dice." The correspondence between family income and test scores has historically been as high as 80 percent. So choosing between scores of, say, 1100 and 1000 on the SAT is likely to amount to a decision based on class, not potential.

Such small gradations in SAT scores aren't meaningful anyway, critics charge. "When you're using the SAT as a big old sloppy paint brush, it's fine," says the Princeton Review's Paul Kanarek. "I'm going to argue that a kid who gets a 1400 combined on the SAT is probably going to do better than a kid who gets a 1000. I've got no objection there. But that's not how they use the test [at UC]."

Actually, the UC system makes fine distinctions based on test scores only among students with GPAs lower than 3.3, and then only among kids who apply to its most popular campuses -- UCLA and UC Berkeley. "If you have high school grades of 3.3 or above, all you have to do is take the SAT I and the SAT II to be eligible," says Keith Widaman, a UC professor and chairman of the BOARS committee. "Over 90 percent of the students we make eligible are eligible on that basis. So you can call that 'eligible by grades alone'; you simply have to take the test."

The university's main argument for using the test is that it has no other yardstick. Combined with high school GPA -- consistently the best single predictor of college performance -- SATscores improve, slightly, prediction of first-year grades.

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