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Jewish World Review May 23, 2002 / 12 Sivan, 5762

Mark Goldblatt

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Consumer Reports

The SAT's the thing | Last year, University of California President Richard Atkinson stirred up a major academic controversy by suggesting that college-admission committees no longer take into account SAT scores. His speech has now born fruit. The College Board, which runs the test, last month announced its intention to redesign it. Among the contemplated revisions: adding a subjective-essay writing element, dropping the rigorous analogy questions, and focusing the math questions less on general reasoning ability and more on specific calculating skills learned in high school.

The motive for such changes is sheer desperation. With affirmative-action admission policies falling by the wayside, SAT numbers make it harder and harder for colleges to admit black and Hispanic students — who historically underperform on the exam. Out of this sad reality arise three common arguments against the SAT as currently constituted: 1) The exam is culturally biased against minorities . . . except that Asian students consistently outscore white students. 2) The availability of SAT preparatory courses skews the scores of students from families affluent enough to afford them . . . except that, according to the latest evidence, the average gains of students who take a prep course are 6-12 points on the verbal section and 13-26 points on the math section — out of a possible 800 — and that comparable gains can be achieved simply by taking the test twice.

Eventually, though, most opponents of the SAT — led by Atkinson himself, Harvard Law School professor Lani Guinier, and Texas Law School professor Gerald Torres — hunker down with a final argument that's not as readily disposed of: 3) The exam measures only the ability to take the exam and doesn't accurately forecast future success in higher education. Now in a limited sense, this is true. Survey after survey has shown only a slight correlation between SAT scores and college grade-point averages or graduation rates.

There is, however, a vast logical leap from acknowledging that the SAT does not predict grades or graduation rates to concluding that it predicts nothing except the ability to take the exam. It's worth clarifying this issue if only to show how statistics have been manipulated by anti-testing pedagogues.

Let's begin with an observation that no one, or at least no one hooked up to a polygraph, disputes: The predictive factor of the SAT is very strong at the extreme ends of the scoring spectrum. So, for example, a student who scores a combined 750 is far likelier to flunk out of Dartmouth or Stanford — or, for that matter, any accredited liberal arts college — than a student who scores a combined 1500. Now imagine a school that attracted equal numbers of 1500 and 750 scorers. Do you think there would be a noticeable correlation between SAT results and grades? Or between SAT results and graduation rates?

If you answered no, you're excused to Never Never Land. Give my regards to Peter and Tink.

In the real world, of course, there is no such school — since elite universities utilize standardized tests to screen out most applicants who score below, say, 1300. This doesn't leave the 1250 student out in the cold; it only redirects him towards a second-tier school, where he'll compete for grades against his fellow 1100-1300's. Even students who score in the 750-900 range will likely find a slot at a state school or community college.

It's this very screening process, however, that undermines the SAT's ability to predict grades and graduation rates since it ensures a relative homogeneity among students at any given college. Once the pool of students is narrowed to those who scored between, say, 1100 and 1300, then variables such as home environment, discipline, and maturity — which the SAT cannot measure — tend to override the statistically minor deviation between, say, a 1130 student and a 1170 student.

The SAT's function as an admission tool, in short, is to channel students into learning situations in which their SAT performance isn't determinative — for the simple reason that their competition for grades tends to be students with similar scores. The fact that this leveling of the playing field undercuts the SAT's predictive qualities is then utilized by opponents of the exam to argue that it serves no purpose.

The foregoing has been largely hypothetical. There is, however, substantial evidence to support the SAT's predictive qualities — though it's perhaps indelicate to cite since it was generated, accidentally, through the very practice of affirmative action. From a database of 45,000 students attending 28 highly selective universities compiled between 1976 and 1989, researchers William Bowen and Derek Bok found that the average score for black admits was 1157; for whites, 1331. Not surprisingly, the mean GPA for black students was in the bottom quarter of their classes, and the dropout rate among blacks was 78 percent higher than among whites.

Given that the schools in the study were bending over backwards to recruit black students, it strains credibility to attribute their poor performance to systematic racism. Far likelier is the explanation that they were unprepared for the rigors of the work at elite universities and would have been better served at second-tier schools — as indicated by their SAT scores.

Thus, the SAT is indeed a reliable predictor of future success in higher education — it just doesn't predict grades or graduation rates.

JWR contributor Mark Goldblatt's novel, Africa Speaks , will be published this month. Comment by clicking here.

05/10/02: America's newest victims: Persons of Density
04/25/02: On Being Whiteballed: Why my novel is nowhere near your bookstore
04/11/02: Why profs fear testing
03/31/02: If you cannot attack a position on "straightforward logical grounds," what grounds remain? Welcome to Columbia U
03/21/02: Last week, in case you missed it, was a banner week for cheese
03/01/02: Black History Month distorts accomplishments

© 2002, Mark Goldblatt