Banning SAT addresses symptom, not cause

Mistaking the symptom for the disease, University of California President Richard C. Atkinson is pressing ahead with his proposal to abolish the SAT I general skills exam as an admission requirement for the UC system’s eight undergraduate schools.

The first of several faculty bodies that must approve the plan before it is submitted to the university’s regents met last week. Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board – which administers the SAT – defended the test as an unmatched measure of students’ “ability to think in words and numbers.” Meanwhile, ACT, Inc. President Richard Ferguson attended the meeting to encourage UC to adopt his organization’s rival admissions exam.

Yet, the discussion missed the underlying problems that originally brought standardized testing for college admissions into question. Critics claim the SAT is biased because women, blacks and Hispanics score lower than white men with the same grade point averages. Atkinson has repeated these criticisms in his campaign to have UC admission decisions based on GPA and the SAT II tests of particular subjects.

The SAT’s defenders point out that, when scores are adjusted to account for a test-taker’s high school classes, the race and gender differences disappear. Frequently absent from the debate, however, is this argument’s logical conclusion: It is impossible to fully assess the SAT until the greater problem of substandard schools is solved. A student, no matter how bright and full of potential, will almost certainly not fare well on an SAT math section if the student’s school never taught algebra or geometry, or never encouraged the student to take extra math classes.

The proposal many favor for California – switching the system’s admission emphasis from the SAT to grades – will address this problem as well as if they decided to do nothing at all. David Murray correctly notes in his book “The War on Testing” that a focus on grades would expand the pool of minority candidates for college, but it would also increase the number of white candidates with better GPAs than test scores. A 1997 report from a California commission concluded the state’s universities would need to respond to an enlarged applicant pool by raising their grade requirements. The study found this would keep Hispanic admission eligibility the same and actually lower than the number of black students the state’s public campuses would consider.

Fixing the multitude of complex and interlocking problems in the nation’s public schools is a more daunting and less politically-attractive task than campaigning to abolish a symbol of education inequality. But in the end, only a genuine reform of education – not a superficial change in how it is measured – will guarantee all students fair access to the nation’s best universities.