The Monitor's View

Lessons for Obama's education goals in the SAT

The shakiness of the college admissions test is a warning about setting national standards for states.

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Test time: Which type of worker – those with college diplomas or those without – has suffered a higher rate of layoffs during this recession?

Answer: Those with no degree – two to three times more.

No wonder President Obama wants every American to have at least one year of higher education. He also wants the US to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

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To achieve those goals won't be easy, and much depends on how students are tested.

His education secretary, Arne Duncan, first wants to make sure more students graduate from high school with a degree that will meet tough federal standards in order to help them be accepted by a college.

Alas, no federal standard now exists – despite the 2001 No Child Left Behind law that required states to meet goals set by the US Department of Education. The Bush administration decided to let each state set its own standards.

The result, says Mr. Duncan, was "extreme variation" and a "dumbing down" of state standards under pressure from politicians. Instead, "I want to be much tighter on the goal … college-ready, career-ready, international benchmark standards, very high bar," he told reporters at a June 10 breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor.

Attempts to set a nationwide education standard have been made in the past.

Just this month, 46 states agreed to move toward uniform learning goals in reading and mathematics for public schools. (Science was left out – which is the very area that the US needs to focus on to be more competitive.) The effort was led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. A previous attempt at standards was tried by teacher groups.

Why is a national standard so difficult to achieve?

One clue is to look at the nationwide test widely used since 1926 to judge whether a student is ready for college – the SAT.

More than 2 million students take it each year. Yet in recent years, an estimated 500 colleges have dropped the SAT as a requirement for admissions.

It was originally designed to measure "aptitude" (thus, the "A" in SAT). But that notion of assigning a single set of numbers to an innate ability for learning has been dropped.

The name SAT now stands for nothing, while the descriptive words that come right after it – such as "critical reading" or "reasoning" – indicate the type of testing – or, rather, the latest ideas of what needs to be tested.

One of the SAT tests has been changed to measure what students actually learn in high school. But even then, the scores offer only a relative comparison with other test takers, not an absolute measure of actual knowledge absorbed.

Over the past 20 years the SAT has been changed so much that it is "at war with itself," says Richard Atkinson, a prominent critic and a former president of the University of California. "The fundamental question is: What is the SAT measuring?" he asked in a recent speech.

Even with longer exam times, new types of questions, and other changes, the SATs have not improved on their validity as a predictor of a student's first-year academic success in college. And the billion-dollar test prep industry only magnifies the achievement gap between low-income and higher-income students.

As a result, the National Association for College Admission Counseling made a plea last fall for schools to reconsider standardized testing as a prime criterion for admissions.

Despite its flaws, the SAT does help keep a check on favoritism in admissions toward the children of rich alumni ("legacies") and on athletes who lack top academic skills. This common practice of unfair preferences in admissions "breeds cynicism among teenagers who represent America's future and learn even before they're old enough to vote that money talks louder than merit," says Daniel Golden, author of "The Price of Admission."

A student's high school grades – despite the widespread practice of "grade inflation" – are still the best indicator of student readiness, especially in college-prep classes, finds Dr. Atkinson.

He writes in a scholarly paper (along with coauthor Saul Geiser): "It may be that no one test, however well designed, can ever be entirely satisfactory in a country with a strong tradition of federalism and local control over the schools. A single national achievement test may be impossible in the absence of a national curriculum."

In addition, testing can fall short in measuring a student's qualities of character – such as creativity and curiosity – that often determine success in learning and in life. Such qualities can be nurtured with the right teacher to increase the intelligence of students.

Before he imposes federal standards in education, Duncan must study the many flaws of the SATs. Those tests have helped both shape and misshape high school education.

The fact that many colleges are wary of relying on the SAT should be a warning about imposing simple, massive solutions in education on a nation of 300 million people.

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