Apt Aptitudes

The SAT exam, which was designed to predict how well someone would do in college, has been criticized for years. Yet it hasn't yet flunked out as an admissions tool. It's a handy way to measure a person's skills and knowledge.

But now one of the country's premier higher educators, Richard Atkinson, president of the University of California system, has publicly rejected the assumptions behind the SAT and other widely used aptitude tests. A psychologist with long experience in devising and assessing tests, Dr. Atkinson is leery of the SAT's claim to gauge aptitude for college work. He wants to drop it as a requirement for applicants to the nine UC campuses.

He argues that a more reasonable college-entrance exam would test the subject matter a college-bound student would have been expected to master in high school. That view, interestingly, is in line with the ideas of reformers who want to use state tests to determine if high school students have mastered tougher curricula and deserve a diploma.

Atkinson also criticizes the test-preparation industry that has grown up around the SAT. Americans are estimated to have spent more than $100 million last year on tutoring and preparation courses to boost scores. He says this focus on one test leads to a neglect of other learning.

But he's paddling against a strong current. Few college and university officials have offered to follow his lead. Rather, most argue that despite the SAT's alleged weaknesses - particularly the claim of a cultural bias that favors white, upper-income test takers - they have no better tool to judge students coming from widely varying secondary-school programs. The SATs help neutralize grade inflation on high school transcripts, say proponents.

Still, more and more schools are giving added weight to other criteria, such as community volunteer service, in judging candidates. Atkinson's arguments will help push this trend.

Numbers don't always tell the whole story of a person eager to learn.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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