California-izing the SATs

What were your SAT scores?'

The question too often pops up between friends, in job interviews, or among fellow workers. For college grads, their scores weren't just for admissions. They've become the indelible fingerprints of prestige or shame among America's educated elite.

Such petty social ranking, however, will shift dramatically this week when the trustees of the College Board, which runs the SATs, are expected to vote to overhaul the test (see story, page 11).

It's a shift that will influence the careers and lifetime incomes of millions of would-be college students, starting with the freshman class of 2006. At the least, comparisons between old and new scores will become confusing, since a perfect score will rise to 2400 from 1600.

The Board was pushed to alter the much-criticized exam after a threat last year by its largest "customer," the nine-campus University of California system with its 148,000 undergrads, to devise its own test.

California found the basic SAT isn't a great predictor of an applicant's success in college or of general aptitude. But more important, the state wants a test to reflect the subject matter students are taught in its public high schools. Then, the state reasons, California's huge population of low-income minorities will be given added incentives to study hard in school and thus increase their chances of going to college (in California, of course).

To help reduce the disconnect between subjects taught and the SAT, the College Board plans to add a writing test and make its math questions more difficult. The infamous analogy questions will be jettisoned, victims of criticism that they require an advanced vocabulary that most often comes from being raised by affluent, well-read, and supportive parents.

Such changes not only reflect new expert thinking about testing but also the Board's need to cater to a big client that's eager to diversify its campuses. The new SATs will be a tool for distributing access to higher ed as much as a way of predicting potential success.

The addition of a writing test will force students to learn a wider range of skills beyond spelling, grammar, or punctuation. Schools will need to improve teaching in composition and writing style, or else more affluent students will continue just to pay for test-prep coaching in writing and gain an advantage.

Changing the SAT to eliminate bias or align it with certain curricula is just one more attempt to bring a college education to children of parents who never went to college. But as more colleges learn to look beyond test numbers and grades to other qualities – community service, diligence, unusual talents – tests become less and less relevant.

Academic success still needs some measuring, of course, but a diversity of approaches will help bring more diversity to campuses. As one-size-fits-all methods decline, finding more varied tools won't be easy.

The ultimate problem lies in the poor quality of many public schools. If colleges can help uplift those schools, then just changing the SAT may become less important.

Putting the SAT to the test was necessary. But how necessary will it be as society gains higher concepts of what learning is all about? Then asking someone about their SAT scores will become a sign of ignorance.

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