Getting Smart on SATs

Recently, the spotlight's been on the debate over national tests to assess reading and math skills. But those proposed national exams aren't the only testing controversy around. For years, educators have debated the merits of the SATs and other standard exams that help determine readiness for college.

Critics say the tests tend to discriminate on a race or class basis, and are poor predictors of academic performance. Last week the University of California's Latino Eligibility Task Force asked the Board of Regents to make the SATS optional for applicants to help boost enrollment of Latinos - and other minorities. The regents will consider the recommendation and may vote on the issue next March.

The NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) is grappling with a similar question. Last week it promised a year-long review of its new, tougher academic requirements for college athletes: at least 820 on the SATs and a high school grade point average of 2.5. The concern in question? That the requirements may hit African-American students hardest.

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The College Board, which administers the SATs, hasn't ignored such complaints. In the past few years, it has revised the test with the aim of removing possible cultural bias.

Still, some colleges and universities have dropped the SAT requirement altogether. They assert that other factors - difficulty and variety of coursework, class rank, school reputation, depth and breadth of extracurricular activities - can tell them more about what students have achieved and how well they're likely to perform in college than a standardized test.

That's perplexing. College admissions officials ought to be seeking as much information as possible. It's difficult enough for them to know how rigorous each high school in the country is in terms of grading and assessing its students. For that reason SAT-type tests have value - not as the only tool for judging applicants but as one of many pieces of evidence about ability and willingness to use what college has to offer. Taken together with other measurements, the test scores can provide multiple insights into student performance.

What educators ought to be examining about SAT-type tests is whether all who take them start from a level playing field (levelled up, not down). Students from more privileged backgrounds typically are better prepared. They sign up for test-preparation courses or coaching. As one educator said, give disadvantaged students the same information everyone else has and they'll do fine.

Public school systems flunk if they don't thus level the field. That means making sure that all students have enough practice at taking such comprehensive tests that inexperience and test fright are not inhibiting factors. Ideally, no student - black, white, Asian, Hispanic, privileged, or poor - should have to rely on a Stanley Kaplan or Princeton Review course to approach the exam with confidence. Then colleges would feel less obliged to handicap their admissions teams by rejecting the tests as one of many pieces of admissions evidence.

And, speaking of level playing fields, the NCAA was right to raise its academic standards - to ask that student athletes perform at least to the minimum expected of everyone else. Some students may need extra help. But those standards are important. They require that athletes not neglect their studies. They push schools that use athletes as cash cows to ensure that the athletes don't fumble on the field of learning.

What's the point of college if not to give students a rigorous higher education? And that requires at least some rigor on admissions standards.

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