What Do You Think?
In Praise of the SAT: A Historical Perspective
Many people have concerns about the new format of the SAT, and not just the students taking the test
In praise of aptitude tests
Mar 10th 2005
From The Economist print edition
What the much-maligned SATs have actually done for America
IN A time-honoured academic ritual, on March 12th 330,000 16-17-year-olds will sit their Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs), just as their parents did before them. Over the year, 2.2m pupils will go through the ordeal. But this year the SATs will be a rather different animal. They will put less emphasis on abstract reasoning and more on what pupils have learned in the classroom. Gone will be the old analogies (rhinos are to watering holes what starlets are to spas) and in will come tests of reading comprehension and algebra. The new SATs will even include a compulsory essay. An examination that was originally intended to test raw ability is mutating into a test of academic achievement.
The old SATs have always come in for passionate criticism. How can they claim to test raw ability when you can boost your scores by coaching, the critics asked? And how can they claim to be fair when poor people and minorities do worse than rich people and whites? But the death-knell of the old system sounded in 2001 when Richard Atkinson, then the president of the University of California, laid into the tests, not least because they encourage students to concentrate on prepping for tests rather than acquiring real knowledge.
Since the University of California is the SAT's biggest customer, and since Mr Atkinson threatened to drop the tests if they didn't change, they changed. But was the College Board, which administers the SATs, right to give in? Very probably not. The old SATs were responsible for producing one of the great silent social revolutions in American history-the rise of the meritocracy. They helped to open America's universities to people who had nothing to recommend them but brains. And in the process they helped to turn those universities into the greatest educational institutions in the world. You fiddle with a mechanism that has such a history at your peril.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the old SATs was that they did exactly what they were supposed to do. They were the brainchild of two remarkable educational visionaries-James Bryant Conant, the president of Harvard University from 1933-53, and Henry Chauncey, the founder of the Educational Testing Service, which designs tests for the College Board.
Conant looked at the Harvard of the 1930s and despaired. He saw a university dominated by rich Wasps who spent their time lounging around in college clubs and attending debutante balls. And he saw those idle youths effortlessly gliding into the top jobs in banking and law. So he asked Chauncey to design tests that would discern people's real ability, rather than their acquired polish. And he laboured mightily to attract students from a wider range of backgrounds.
The result was both an academic and social revolution. Other universities followed where Harvard led. And the arrival of mass higher education in the wake of the second world war turned the Education Testing Service into the arbiter of a huge system of educational opportunity. Poorer children flooded into the universities as never before-and thence into the sort of jobs that had once been reserved for the Wasp elite. And richer children either had to survive on their own brain-power or else make do with less famous institutions. George Bush sailed into Yale in 1964, thanks to his family connections; but seven years later, when Yale had belatedly embraced the SAT revolution, his brother Jeb went to the University of Texas instead.
This is not to say that the old SATs were perfect. But many of the time-worn criticisms of them are either exaggerated or misplaced. Critics complain that the tests are mass-produced monstrosities. But how can you digest more than 2m applicants a year without dealing in mass production? (One dreads to think how the College Board will grade the new essays.) Critics complain that a giant industry has developed to game the tests. But how can you stop people trying to boost their performance when so much hangs on getting into a good college? Critics complain that richer students do better, on average, than poorer ones. But has anybody ever developed tests that are better at finding bright children from disadvantaged backgrounds?
The real scandal
One of the biggest dangers with the new SATs is that they will end up being more socially exclusive than the old ones. Middle-class children from high-quality schools will surely have a big advantage when it comes to taking tests that emphasise algebra or essay-writing. The decision to remove the analogies portion of the test is particularly hard to fathom. There is good evidence that minority students actually did better on these analogies than on, say, reading comprehension, which is now being given more weight.
The real scandal of academic selection in America is not the presumed failure of standardised tests to measure ability. It is the increasing willingness of American universities to consider factors other than test scores when it comes to admitting applicants. Universities discount test results when it comes to admitting star athletes. Or else they give a "slight advantage" to the children of alumni or professors. Or else they admit minority students with lower SAT scores, only to see a disproportionate number of them drop out because they can't cope. If universities admitted students purely on the basis of their grades and test scores, as they should, the proportion of successful poor students would actually go up rather than down.
Conant and Chauncey have an honoured place in history as the architects of a social revolution that made America fairer, richer and better educated. Perhaps Mr Atkinson, too, will be honoured for fine-tuning their successful system. But it is far more likely that he will go down in history as a man who helped to unravel the meritocratic principle-and to widen America's class divisions still further.
Copyright © 2005 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.