'Recentering' the SAT

June 25, 1994

There are two prevailing myths about the Scholastic Assessment Test, known until recently as the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

One is that the results of the college entrance examination demonstrate a steady decline in American school achievement over much of this half of the century. The other (closely related) is that SAT scores show a decline in the quality of American schools over the same period.

Both are probably true, but the SAT is no place to find the proof.

When the current scoring system was established in 1941 (well before television, remember), 10,000 students took the test, 40 percent of them in private schools and most on the way to prestigious colleges. Today, 1.2 million students take the test. Eighty-two percent are in public schools, 30 percent are minorities, and many more are aspiring to college. This demographic change corresponds with a decline in average SAT scores from 500 on both the verbal and mathematics tests to 424 on the verbal and 478 on the math.

Now the College Entrance Examination Board, which administers the SAT, is "re-centering" the scores to return the average of both the verbal and math tests to 500 -- the midway point on the SAT scale of 200 to 800. This means average students will once again score 500, but everyone's scores will go up. The change will make it easier for students to know where they stand in relation to the average, but it won't make any of them smarter; the emperor will still be wearing the same clothes.

A good deal of emotion surrounds the SATs. Not only the media and politicians, but students and educators misinterpret SAT dTC

scores, sometimes deliberately. The scores are used to compare high schools and colleges, to judge selectivity in university admissions, even to determine eligibility for college athletics.

The SAT was designed for none of those purposes; it was meant to predict a student's performance as a college freshman. But given the hothouse atmosphere surrounding the test, it is predictable that the grading change will be distorted, too. When a College Board spokesman says the new scoring will "more accurately reflect the number and nature of the people now taking the test," he is on the verge of distortion, implying that certain of the groups taking the SAT will be helped by the change.

There will be a good deal of confusion as the SAT changes occur, and all up and down the line people will attempt to turn the "improved" scores to their advantage. It's up to the College Board and high school and college educators to help the public understand that the SATs aren't getting any easier -- nor have those who take the tests gotten instantly smarter.

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