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Should SAT be scrapped?

Chủ đề trong 'Du học' bởi Angelique, 12/05/2001.

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    Reining in the test of tests
    Some say the SAT is destiny. Some say it's meaningless. Should it be scrapped?

    By Ben Wildavsky

    Richard Atkinson is not typical of those who fret over the SAT, yet there he was last year poring over a stack of prep manuals, filling in the bubbles with his No. 2 pencils. When the esteemed cognitive psychologist, former head of the National Science Foundation and now president of the prestigious nine-campus University of Cali- fornia system, decided to investigate his long-standing misgivings about the nation's best known standardized test, he did just what many of the 1.3 million high school seniors who take the SAT do every year. Every night or so for several weeks, the 71-year-old Atkinson pulled out his manuals and sample tests to review and assess the sort of verbal and mathematical questions teenagers are up against.

    Atkinson, a testing expert, didn't much like what he saw. There were too many confusing questions and obscure verbal analogies-the kind that require students to figure out that "untruthful" is to "menda- ciousness" as "circumspect" is to "caution." Nor was he happy when he visited a Northern California private school last year and saw a class of 12-year-olds practicing for SAT exams-exams that were literally years away. Unlike many SAT critics, however, Atkinson is in a position to do something about the college admissions test: In a groundbreaking February 18 speech to the American Council on Education, he called for scrapping the SAT I (the formal name for the test) in UC's future undergraduate admissions decisions.

    His proposal, which stands a decent chance of approval by the faculty and regents sometime in the next year, is already causing a huge stir on campuses nationwide. Indeed, it has rekindled long-standing arguments about the test that go far beyond California: Is the SAT overrated as a college-admissions tool and predictor of performance? Is it unfair to poor and minority students (critics have long called the test "culturally biased")-especially now that some universities have stopped giving admissions preferences to blacks and Hispanics, whose average SAT scores are much lower than those of whites and Asians? And, perhaps most fundamental, should colleges be picking students based on their acquired knowledge rather than general aptitude? The California system, Atkinson contends, should only use standardized exams directly linked to the material students have studied in school.

    Scuttling chances. Esther Walling would be glad to see the SAT go. A college counselor at Jefferson High School in South Central Los Angeles, she says her low-income, Latino students generally do not test well on the SAT, although they are very capable. One of the school's stars, 17-year-old senior Pascual Ramos, has earned straight A's in nine rigorous Advanced Placement courses. But he only managed a combined score of 1080 on the SAT-above the national average of 1019 but well below what elite schools expect. He's applied to several UC schools as well as private universities such as Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, and-his dream campus-the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "I'll get into a couple of them," he predicts. "I only worry about my SAT scores."

    It's the nebulous nature of the SAT that bothers many opponents. The test is "a big fuzzball," says testing specialist James Popham, an emeritus professor at UCLA who considers the exam a glorified IQ test. Not so, says the College Board, which sponsors the test. But the board hasn't helped clarify matters by executing a couple of rhetorical somersaults in recent years. In 1994 it changed the SAT's name from Scholastic Aptitude Test-the name since it was first developed in 1926-to the Scholastic Assessment Test. These days the official position is that the initials don't stand for anything.

    But there's no mystery about what the test does, says College Board President Gaston Caperton. The three-hour exam measures "the sort of higher-order math and literary-reasoning skills that students need *****cceed in college and later in life," he argues. The test correlates well with freshman-year college grades, the College Board says, especially when used in combination with high school grades. "The SAT works," insists Caperton. "Scapegoating the SAT will not provide better teaching and learning in the schools."

    The latest assault on the SAT follows the demise of affirmative action in several states, where universities can no longer give special admissions breaks to minority applicants. Continued reliance on test scores makes it hard *****stain previous levels of minority enrollment, so there's been a scramble for race-blind alternatives. Already, the state of Texas and the UC system have adopted college admissions systems based in part on class rank. Regardless of test scores, a student at the top of his or her high school class (the top 10 percent in Texas, the top 4 percent in California) is automatically admitted to state universities. The new policies are politically popular, but critics fret that they rely on the continued segregation of high schools and may lower admissions standards because school quality varies so widely.

    In the short term, Atkinson wants UC to continue requiring the subject-specific achievement tests (known collectively as the SAT II), which measure knowledge in such areas as writing, math, history, and foreign languages. Eventually, he'd like to see new tests linked more directly to UC's required college-prep curriculum. There's nothing wrong with "teaching to the test," he says, so long as the test is measuring mastery of the curriculum. UC officials say their research shows that SAT II subject tests are a slightly better predictor of freshman grades than the SAT I. What's more, they note, racial disparities in test results, though still considerable, aren't as dramatic for subject-area tests as they are for the SAT.

    But skeptics say that it's only a matter of time before there is pressure to scrap subject-area tests as well. Abigail Thernstrom, an affirmative action critic and coauthor of America in Black and White, is especially concerned about the move toward "holistic" criteria that go beyond both test scores and grades. "Getting rid of the SATs is the first step in a wretched direction," Thernstrom says, predicting the move will lower standards.

    While the debate over testing and college admissions continues, high school students are focusing on the SAT (and another widely used but less controversial test, the ACT) like never before. Indeed, an entire test-preparation industry (box, Page 49) has grown up to cater to nervous parents, and students who are convinced that their shot at the good life will rise or fall on one Saturday morning's performance. Even high-scoring students pull out all the stops to boost their numbers. Jennifer Harrigan, an 18-year-old senior at Satellite High School in Satellite Beach, Fla., scored 1310 on the PSAT in her junior year-high enough to qualify for a National Merit Scholarship commendation but far below what she needed to snare a full scholarship to Emory University, her top choice. Staging a marathon study session over her March 2000 spring break, Harrigan spent four hours a day scouring test-prep flash cards and a CD-ROM. The result? A 1430 on the SAT's April administration. Still dissatisfied with her math score, Harrigan devoted over an hour a night to math review and a four-hour block each weekend to practice tests. The persistence paid off. Her new combined score of 1460 nailed her a $7,000 scholarship to Georgia Tech, plus acceptance to Emory. "It's a fair test," says Harrigan of the SAT. "They don't keep a secret what's on the test, so you can totally study for it."

    Objective criteria. How much do SAT scores really matter in the college admissions process? It all depends. Some schools, like UC-San Diego, freely admit that getting in is almost all about grades and scores. "Our admissions process is formulistic, not holistic, and I believe that's the best way to go," says Richard Backer, assistant vice chancellor for enrollment management at UCSD, which will accept about 16,000 out of 38,137 applicants in order to enroll an entering class of 3,800. "We are a public institution and as such the public has a right to know exactly what our criteria are. At the moment, I can tell the parents who call exactly why their son or daughter didn't get in. I don't have to give a subjective answer."

    At elite private institutions, on the other hand, admissions officials insist that SAT scores are simply one factor in a comprehensive evaluation process and that there's no magic number. "We take everything into account that we can get our hands on, and the SATs are one factor that we find helpful," says Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of admissions for Harvard College, which last year turned down almost half the 347 applicants who came knocking with perfect 1600 SATs. Many admissions personnel say high scores won't make up for lackluster grades or an unchallenging course load. Still, while elite schools swear that they don't use automatic cutoffs to sift applicants, they pay plenty of attention to grades and scores. Would-be students can't help but notice that those who actually get in typically have sky-high numbers. Admissions officers worry that dropping SAT requirements entirely will rob them of a useful tool, especially in an era of widespread grade inflation when a neutral yardstick helps them compare students from schools with wildly different standards.

    Wherever they stand on the usefulness of the SAT, many college officials are appalled by the extent to which SAT scores have become tied to people's sense of self-worth. "What bothers a lot of people is that SAT-taking has basically become a religion," says Rutgers University President Francis Lawrence. "Kids live and die by what they score on that three-hour test," says Ray Brown, dean of admissions at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. "If I never again hear a student say to me, 'I'm just a 1050,' it'll be too soon." Many students with modest scores don't even bother applying to highly selective colleges. The self-esteem equation can work both ways, of course. Anthony DeCinque, 17, a senior at Jonesboro High School in Georgia, has readjusted his academic ambitions after nailing a perfect 1600 on the SAT (that's still a rare accomplishment, though the number of perfect scores jumped 17-fold, from 32 to 545,when SAT scores were recalibrated in 1995. A combined score of 1400 today would have been a 1340 in the old days). His fallback school was the University of Georgia, but he's already gotten accepted to Georgia Tech and, like Pascual Ramos of Los Angeles, is keeping his fingers crossed hoping for a thick envelope from MIT. "It's a great confidence-builder," he says of his accomplishment.

    Long before the new UC proposal, several hundred campuses had already bowed out of the SAT frenzy entirely. Last year, Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts joined Bates, Bowdoin, Bard, and Connecticut College among others in dropping the SAT requirement. This is a godsend for teens who have proved themselves to everyone but the testing agencies. Take Bates freshman Sarah Gray, who graduated with high honors from Orono High School in Maine but never managed to break an 1190 despite three cracks at the SAT. Her score kept her from applying to Ivy League schools, and she was relieved to be judged by her other accomplishments at Bates, where she earned a 3.92 GPA her first semester. "I just am not good at taking the SAT," says Gray, clearly still exasperated by the experience. "I don't think it says how smart I am, and I certainly don't think it shows anything about anyone's work ethic."

    At a much larger school, the University of Texas-Austin, nearly half the 7,600-member freshman class was admitted without regard to test scores under the new top-10 percent admissions rule. So far, says UT-Austin President Larry Faulkner, top-10 percent students are earning much higher college grades than classmates accepted on the basis of test scores. So will he think about dropping the SAT for all students? "We'll talk about it," he says. "It would be a mistake to think the SAT has no predictive value. It does. The question is whether there are other tests that have better predictive value."

    It's ironic that a test first used as a tool for meritocracy has now come under fire as a barrier to opportunity. As Nicholas Lemann recounts in his 1999 book The Big Test, Harvard President James Conant laid the groundwork for the eventual nationalization of the SAT by using the exam in the 1930s to identify talented Midwestern public school scholarship boys who didn't have the advantages of an East Coast prep school education. An objective test, the theory went, could sweep away class advantages. Now the pendulum has swung back, and measures of innate aptitude are increasingly under suspicion. But Conant's original concerns aren't going to go away. Right after Atkinson's speech to college officials, Susan Cole, the president of Montclair State University in New Jersey, stood up to warn that moving to curriculum-based tests could worsen inequality for students who don't have access to good classes and good teachers. Others point out that axing the SAT won't do anything to get rid of racial and socioeconomic gaps in achievement, which show up on a wide variety of tests as well as in high school grades. The SAT debate at UC will be closely watched around the country, but don't expect the testing wars to die down anytime soon

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