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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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.