Page One

Divided panel looks at SAT issue

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet staff
Tuesday May 01, 2001

At a time when many say an overemphasis on high-stakes, standardized tests in public schools perpetuates social and economic inequalities, a panel of experts visiting UC Berkeley last Friday discussed the strengths and drawbacks of perhaps the most infamous test of all: the Scholastic Aptitude Test. 

The UC Berkeley student government convened the panel in the wake of University of California President Richard Atkinson’s call in February for eliminating the SAT from the UC system’s admissions process by 2003. 

Speaking at the American Council on Education’s annual meeting, Atkinson said the UC system ought to use a test based directly college preparatory curriculum, rather than on “undefined notions of aptitude or intelligence.” 

Atkinson also called for a more holistic admissions process that considers many different measures of student achievement. Such an approach, he said, would reduce inherent bias against low-income and minority students, who tend to score lower on the SAT tests. 

On Friday, the panel shed light on the sheer complexity of the standardized testing issue, listing myriad reasons why there can be no easy solution to the problem. 

“Any time we make a change, half the world howls in anguish,” said Rafael Magallan, director of state services for the College Board, the company that makes the SAT. “There is no such thing as a perfect assessment.” 

Seppy Basili, executive director of Kaplan, Inc., a private company that prepares students for tests like the SAT, said a move to a test more directly linked to school curriculum could actually increase the achievement gap between low-income and minority students and others. 

“Let the full population take the content tests and the gaps will only get worse,” he said.  

“The issue we keep skirting is this whole notion of equity,” he added. “The fact is, whatever test anyone puts out there, there will always be an income differential.” 

Jay Rosner, president of the test prep company Princeton Review, said the SAT test actually served to “democratize” higher education when it was instituted in the sixties. It interrupted the “pipeline” that carried the children of wealthy families directly to the nation’s top schools by introducing an element of merit into the admissions process, he said. 

But in today’s America, said Rosner, the SAT test often serves to make higher education less democratic by reducing access for students of certain racial and economic backgrounds to top schools. 

Since Atkinson’s speech launched a debate about the SAT and the admissions process generally, a number of people have defended the need for universities to continue to have highly selective admissions processes.  

Eliminating the use of the SAT “may not be good for UC in terms of having the best students who attract the best faculty,” UC Board of Regents President Sue Johnson told the San Francisco Chronicle in February. 

Panel member Magallan said Friday that the SAT is still one of the best indicators for how students will perform in college. 

But other panelists said, while the SAT may be one of the best indicators, it is not a particularly reliable indicator by an objective analysis. Schools that use the test for that reason are “paying a high price for that in minorities excluded from admissions,” Rosner said. 

Calvin Moore, chair of a faculty committee that helps determine admissions policy at Berkeley, defended the SAT, saying whether it was tied directly to high school curriculum or not it tests mathematical problem solving and reading comprehension, the very things “that should be taught in high school.” 

At a time when new academic standards are being rolled out all over the country by politicians eager to make a name for themselves as education reformers, the SAT has added legitimacy because it is isolated from political pressures, Moore said. 

“The important thing about the SAT tests is that they are removed from politics,” he said. “They have an independent existence.” 

Finally, Moore said that UC Berkeley’s admissions process, unlike that of most UC schools, takes into account the reputation and resources of a student’s secondary school when interpreting SAT scores, thus taking some of the bias out of the test.  

“A 600 verbal means different things depending on a student’s preparatory school,” he said. 

If UC Berkeley stopped using the SAT in admissions tomorrow it would make very little difference because the test is just one of many indicators the school uses to determine a student’s merit, Moore said.  

As proof that Berkeley’s admissions process was not biased against racial minorities, Moore pointed to the following statistic: of the 36,000 applicants to UC Berkeley this year, 16.6 percent were underrepresented minorities. Of the 8,700 admitted, 16.2 percent were underrepresented minorities. 

But panelist Justin Fong, Student Regent on the UC Board of Regents, said such numbers miss the point. 

Before they are even considered for admission to the UC System, graduates of public high schools must rank in the top 12.5 percent of all students, he said – based entirely on their GPA and SAT scores. Thus, the pool of applicants from which UC Berkeley selects its students contains a tiny number of minorities relative to the overall demographics of California’s high schools, Fong said. 

“I think everyone on this panel would agree that you are looking for students that have the drive to learn,” Fong said. “How do we get an admissions process that determines this? That’s something that we’re not getting from these tests.”