Exploring alternatives to the SAT

What if the SAT "magically disappeared and a law was passed that it could not be reinvented?" proposes Howard Gardner, a professor of education at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "Obviously, we would find other ways to make difficult judgments of quality, and I submit that we could come up with much better ones."

Recently, Professor Gardner, who has written extensively on learning, gave a joint talk at Harvard with Nicholas Lemann, a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of this fall's "The Big Test" (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux).

The two discussed their views on testing and possible alternatives to the SAT.

Mr. Lemann's focus is sociological - his book examines the history of the SAT and its effect on America's class system. Gardner, on the other hand, takes a psychological approach, expanding on his theory of "multiple intelligences" (which he first introduced over 20 years ago) and applying it to education. Despite these differences, they share a belief that the current system needs fixing.

For Gardner, an ideal test would examine whether students had mastered broader "disciplinary" modes of thinking - such as historical, scientific, mathematical, and artistic. In his book "The Disciplined Mind" (Simon & Schuster), published last spring, he lays this theory out in some detail, explaining, "the goal is to make youngsters comfortable with the intellectual core, the analytic power of several ways of approaching the world."

Advanced placement exams, Gardner argues, are "pretty good at detecting this," whereas the SAT is "quite undisciplined, except for some algebraic and geometric knowledge."

Lemann essentially takes Gardner's idea about disciplines one step further, arguing that America should have a "national curriculum, with a national test based on curriculum mastery."

In fact, he explains, the lack of a national curriculum was precisely what led to the creation of the SAT in the first place.

According to Lemann, the founders of the SAT felt that US schools were "too varied, and too spread out, and too much under local control to fix," so they decided instead to develop a test to "pick people out and bring them to the university system."

This process essentially created "a national system [of education] for the elite, and a local system for the mass."

"I would like to see a more national system for the mass," he continues. "More like the SAT IIs [formerly known as achievement tests] but more specifically curriculum-based. To do that you have to have national curriculum standards."

At least then, he states, "test prep and learning your coursework would be the same thing."

On this point, however, Gardner disagrees. Ten years ago, he admits, he too favored a national curriculum, but since then he has come to realize that it's simply too improbable.

"There are too many different epistemologies in this country," he contends, adding, "My ideal curriculum would be very different from, for example, E.D. Hirsch's [developer of the "Core Knowledge" curriculum]."

Moreover, he warns, there's already enough evidence indicating that when schools begin to teach to tests, the quality of the education goes down. Whether it's the SAT or some other type of exam, "when tests take over," he says flatly, "teaching becomes joyless."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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