Will California lead way to a post-SAT era?

Proposal to drop it in state school admissions reopens debate about test's benefits and costs

It has become a rite of passage, the three-hour marathon that sends chills through high school students as they sit down with No. 2 pencils: the dreaded SAT.

Two million students take the SAT each year. Nine out of 10 colleges and universities require it from applicants. Most admissions officers say the SAT and high-school grade-point averages, taken together, are the best predictors of college success.

But don't tell that to Richard Atkinson. The president of the University of California says he wants to dump the SAT as an admissions requirement.

His pointed proposal at a recent national meeting of college presidents has intensified the drumbeat of debate over the SAT's value. Critics have long claimed the test discriminates against women and minorities.

But the test has also been lauded for acting as a useful reference point in an era when applicants have dramatically varied academic backgrounds and grades are often inflated. Many schools have been left wondering: Can institutions assure student quality without the SAT?

Getting into an elite college was one of Lien Le's early goals. But the Vietnamese immigrant didn't even submit SAT scores to Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, a top-ranked school.

Not doing so would have locked her out of most schools. But Bates has a 15-year-old policy that makes SAT scores optional. And no standardized tests have been required for Bates applicants for a decade.

The decision to admit Ms. Le involved little risk, according to William Hiss, the former Bates director of admissions who led the charge for dropping the SAT requirement. Without the SAT as a guide, Le's application, essay, recommendations, and transcript were read very carefully, Hiss says. She had graduated first in her high school class.

As an eighth-grader in Portland, Maine - fresh from a refugee camp - she had learned English slowly. She was sharp in math. But the verbal portion of the SAT was not built with Le in mind. Still, it was clear to the Bates admissions office that this woman was as determined and capable as they come, whether an SAT score said so or not.

In 1999, Le graduated Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude from Bates. Now she's attending medical school at Dartmouth University.

"She's exactly the person we are trying to find," says Mr. Hiss, now vice president of administrative services, which oversees admissions. "If we had required the SAT, it probably would have screened her out. There are tens of thousands of those kids in California."

In the case of the University of California, Dr. Atkinson says a move away from the SAT would lead to greater confidence in the fairness of the admissions process. It would also direct student energies toward regular studies instead of test prep.

"I concluded what many others have concluded, that America's overemphasis on the SAT is compromising our educational system," Atkinson said in a Feb. 18 keynote speech to the American Council on Education, a gathering of hundreds of college and university presidents.

He called "disturbing" the hours high school students spend developing test-taking skills rather than reading and writing.

But the move may not have sweeping repercussions, despite the California system's clout.

"We're not changing our approach," says John Blackburn, dean of admission at the University of Virginia. "The SAT is helpful."

He agrees the SAT has a bad reputation mainly because some universities rely upon it too heavily, making student scores almost an automatic gauge of admittance or rejection. That's not what happens at UVA, he says.

"We get about 16,000 applications," Mr. Blackburn says. "We do have to make some tough calls. The SAT is one of the factors we use. However, we've never had a formula.... Testing is helpful, but not the final word."

Blackburn says this spring, UVA will admit one student whose parents only had an eighth-grade education and whose SAT scores were "pretty modest." By contrast, another applicant with a perfect 1600 SAT score will be denied because the student "just hasn't worked hard enough - taken tough courses," he says.

For his part, Atkinson said in his speech that he is not against tests, but favors a "holistic" approach that takes into more account the actual performance in high school - measured by subject-specific tests known as SAT II. The SAT I, so commonly used in admissions, is a broad cognitive test of verbal and math skills.

Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, which owns the SAT, says he respects Atkinson but disagrees with his proposal. "I can't understand at all why he wants to eliminate the SAT I. It's a very good test, a fair test, It asks you to critically think, which is an essential part of learning and cognitive ability."

It's too early to know if California's proposal will spread - or if it will be implemented. The faculty senate and other hurdles await. Some are concerned about the costs of greatly expanding admissions offices to read applications in more detail.

A few elite schools besides Bates don't use the SAT (see story below). Last year, Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., joined the club of about 280 institutions nationwide that don't require the SAT.

Still, the movement to drop the SAT has been modest. At least 10 to 15 institutions dropped it as a requirement in the past decade, says Robert Schaeffer, a testing expert at FairTest in Cambridge, Mass. But he expects the list will grow to more than 300 when he updates it next month.

All of which is purely academic to Ricky Rao. The Plano (Texas) West Senior High School student has a 3.89 grade-point average. After spending hundreds of dollars on test preparation, he expects to graduate this spring, having taken the SAT four times. The last time, he achieved a 1480 score - compared with 1280 the first time he took it.

"I was ecstatic," he says. "I do think the SAT can demonstrate a student's ability."

But Le is less sanguine.

"[The SAT] is totally biased against people like me, newcomers with no previous experience with the educational system," she says. "I didn't do well on the SAT. But it didn't have any reflection on my ability to succeed."

E-mail claytonm@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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