When aptitude tests flunk
Ralph Nader's is only the latest of many concerned voices to question the growing use of national standardized tests and their influence on the lives and careers of millions of young people. The exams play a key role in determining, for instance, who gets into the "best" colleges, who is admitted to law, medical , and graduate schools, and which children are classed as retarded or slow learners and thereby directed towards vocational or other careers. Such tests as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), used to weed out college applicants, and the IQ, used in elementary schools, toudh the lives of most Americans at one time or another. Current efforts to improve the tests and make testing organizations accountable are to be applauded.
The basic criticism of SATs is that they discriminate on the basis of class and race and are poor predictors of performance in college. The Nader study may exaggerate in charging that the aptitude tests "on the average predict grades only 8 to 15 percent better than a random prediction with a pair of dice." Administrators at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, New Jersey, dispute the Nader figures. But there can be little doubt about the study's major conclusion that college admissions officers, among others, place too much importance on such tests.
Used in conjunction with a student's high- school academic record and his or her extra- curricular achievements in community, artistic, and scientific endeavors, for instance, the SAT can provide insight into a student's fitness for college. But trouble arises when the SAT score becomes the primary or sole basis for selections, and this, regrettably, is too often the case.
However, an admissions officer at one large Ivy League university has noted that after the studies a student's background and interests, he does not need the SAT score to judge an applicant's prospects for succeeding. A liberal-arts college president we know makes it a practie to routinely overrule his admissions office and accept at least four applicants rejected on the basis of SAT scores. Choosing them on the basis of qualities rather than grades alone, he says, his "rejects" have performed superbly.
This kind of broader, more flexible approach is needed. It in no way dictates a lowering of academic standards, but it does put standardized tests in better perspective and leaves less opportunity for arbitrary and discriminatory judgments. Used in this limited, more realistic fashion, SATs and other standardized tests should continue to prove a valuable tool for schools and colleges.