Un-stress the SAT

July 16, 2002|By James L. Fisher

THE PEAK SAT time will be coming up shortly and the anxiety level of students and their parents is already rising.

When will we really take a hard look at the College Board's entrance examination? Should the SAT be changed or de-emphasized or completely dropped as an admission requirement? Passion abounds on both sides -- from diehards who continue to maintain that it is the great equalizer to egalitarians who shout unfair discrimination.

Lately, the issue has been further dramatized for me because over the past two years, three of my nine grandchildren have taken the SAT. They scored well and they are honor students. Nonetheless, one told me that she had never been so tense and that on several occasions during the examination felt ill. Another gave up much of the summer taking an SAT prep course, and all three were anxious.

The inordinate importance of the SAT has been reinforced by public schools across the country, including Baltimore County, who sign alliances with the College Board to help improve declining scores. An interesting oxymoron: How can one study for an aptitude test? These reports give real life to the stories about anxiety and emotional distress in secondary school students, and even parents, caused by standardized tests for college admission and the value of the profitable industry that has grown to exploit the condition.

The sum of the argument for the SAT is that the test offsets differences in secondary schools and provides an objective measure to ensure fairness in college admission. Even proponents agree that the primary value of the SAT is to use the results to help predict the first-semester college grade point average (GPA). For more than 50 years, this combination of standardized test scores and secondary school records has been the most accurate predictor of first-semester GPA.

Indeed, there is no doubt that in the 1930s when Harvard President James Conant advocated the use of the SAT in college admissions the purpose was worthy. He hoped to eliminate the class barriers in college admissions and afford an opportunity for all to be considered for admission based on an objective, unbiased aptitude test. No longer would the Ivy League be the exclusive province of a privileged class.

But it is 2002, and Mr. Conant's democratic idea has not measured up to its idealistic origins. There are those who rationally argue that the SAT is loaded with racial, gender, socioeconomic and achievement factors and that the stigma of inferiority does make a difference in test performance.

Clearly, the SAT is not the equalizer that it was created to be. To many, the reality of standardized testing has become the antithesis of its original egalitarian dream. A number of institutions have already dropped the SAT requirement, and public universities in several states have also moved to de-emphasize College Board scores. This is a healthy movement and, hopefully, will result in constructive change across the board.

But the unvarnished truth is that the SAT should be completely dropped as an admission criterion.

The primary reasons are two:

In only our most selective colleges do standardized tests really play an important role in the admission decision itself. And although the kids anguish, today most colleges use them for only public relations.

There is a better predictor of first-term college success than any other combination of variables, including a standardized test. Colleges should require an easily computed academic composite score derived from subjects taken in secondary school and grades received. (English, mathematics, certain science courses, foreign language and advanced placement courses with weights assigned based on grades received.)

Think on this: Doesn't it make sense that if you do well in college preparatory subjects you will likely do well in college? The obvious conclusion: Eliminate the standardized test as a factor in college admission and use a better and more objective predictor than all the others combined -- an academic composite.

Adopting such a policy would reduce the anxiety associated with the SAT and place testing in its proper perspective and role -- that is, for advising and placement. Not only would intelligence and fairness prevail, but the next generation of grandchildren could study productively and enjoy secondary school at the same time.

James L. Fisher is a registered psychologist and professor of leadership studies at the Union Institute and University. He is president emeritus of Towson University and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

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