Time to toss out test

March 21, 2006|By WALT GARDNER

It had to happen sooner or later. Forced to explain the long delay between its discovery of scoring errors on the October SAT and its reporting of them, the College Board once again put its interests ahead of those of applicants and their parents.

SAT tests taken by 5,600 students in October were erroneously scored by Pearson Educational Measurement, a firm contracted by the College Board. The board said the errors were caused by rain-damaged test sheets that prevented proper scanning.

Although the board's explanation was more plausible than ones surrounding other issues it has faced, the statement still left an uneasy feeling that the gatekeeper to the nation's colleges and universities was repeating its characteristic disingenuousness.

Originally conceived by Carl Brigham as an instrument of promoting meritocracy when higher education in this country was an elitist proposition, the SAT early on developed a reputation for opacity.

In 1946, when the Scholastic Aptitude Test, as it was then called, began to gain widespread use, the College Board adamantly maintained that the test was not coachable. It was intended to measure innate ability. But Stanley H. Kaplan, who went on to found the eponymous test preparation company, proved that was not the case by helping students in his Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood, dramatically boost their test scores by constant practice.

Faced with the possibility that its most lucrative brand was vulnerable to focused learning strategies, like any test, the College Board stubbornly refused to deviate from its policy of publishing any more than a few sample items for both the verbal and math sections. As the stakes rose and pressure mounted from students and their parents, however, the Educational Testing Service, which designs the SAT, was finally forced in the early 1980s to release copies of old tests to the public.

Following these developments, the College Board was determined not to yield any more ground. Its trump card was its persistent claim that without the predictive value of SAT scores, admissions officers would be severely handicapped in selecting their freshmen classes. But the College Board was about to be as blindsided by Bates College as it had been by Stanley Kaplan decades earlier.

Breaking ranks with other highly selective schools, Bates, in Lewiston, Maine, decided to make submission of SAT scores optional in 1984. At the time, the decision was radical because the College Board had been enormously successful in its campaign to convince admissions officers about the test's indispensability. Nevertheless, Bates persisted in its experiment. In 2004, Bates released its 20-year data of some 7,000 applicants. It found no differences in academic performance and on-time graduation rates between submitters and non-submitters. Other prestigious schools have reported similar outcomes.

For educators, the news came as no surprise. Like other standardized tests on the market, the SAT lives or dies on its ability to distinguish between test-takers. If it couldn't engineer a spreading out of scores, its hopes of staying in business would be slim.

To deliver on its promise, therefore, the SAT deliberately avoids items likely to measure the most important content that teachers emphasize in class instruction. These items run the risk of generating scores that are bunched together, making rankings difficult.

Instead, the SAT includes items that are disproportionately impervious to even the best teaching. These assess what students bring to class in the form of their socioeconomic backgrounds. This approach has consistently yielded the coveted differences among test-takers.

What's increasingly evident after so many years is that the only real winners in the continuing use of the SAT, beside the College Board, are the players in the $310-million-a-year test preparation industry. It's certainly not applicants and their families, despite what vested interests would like everyone to believe.

Rather than persist in the fiction that the SAT performs any defensible educational function, it's time to put the test to eternal sleep. Doing so would constitute a public service long overdue.

Walt Gardner taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was a lecturer in the University of California, Los Angeles Graduate School of Education. His e-mail is walt.gard@verizon.net.

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