Changing the SATs

November 19, 1990

With anything as emotional as a test determining a young person's higher education prospects, job opportunities and earning ability, controversy abounds. The College Board's long-awaited changes to the 64-year-old Scholastic Aptitude Test are no exception.

Critics at the Massachusetts-based Center for Fair and Open Testing have labeled cosmetic the proposed elimination of lists of words of opposite meanings, greater emphasis on reading comprehension, open-ended math problems, allowing students to use calculators and essay sections added to achievement tests. Representatives of test-coaching programs agree. They are natural opponents of the College Board's attempt to make the test more impervious to crash-course preparation, thus leveling the playing field.

The National Organization for Women sued New York state to eliminate its sole reliance on SAT scores to award scholarships, claiming the consistently higher scores of boys shows gender bias in the tests. And California educators and representatives of minority groups attacked essay exam proposals, saying they discriminate against those from non-European backgrounds.

What's happening is that the College Board is trying to tailor its exams more closely to the skills needed in baccalaureate studies. Nearly 2 million students take the SATs each year, and colleges use their scores to gauge academic potential. Critics say that grades, evaluations and recommendations are better predictors of college performance, and about 30 percent of the nation's colleges and universities now have open, non-test-dependent enrollments. Many others have quit relying on test scores as the only admissions criteria.

Despite the controversy, the proposed changes are reasonable. There is a valid place for widely applicable standards in American education. Remember, standardized tests absolutely control the destinies of students aiming for college in Japan, a nation many Americans admire for its educational success. And standardized tests are used in many other ways by the military, in private industry and the civil service.

Strong arguments have been made about cultural bias in the tests, and questions of fairness are proper. But getting rid of tests altogether is not the answer. That would just eliminate the guidelines educators strive for in preparing their students for college-level study and introduce even more subjectivity into the admissions process.

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