SAT is best measure of general aptitude

Posted: Feb 28, 2001 12:00 AM
I have no great love for the SAT. I did OK, but not good enough to avoid getting rejected from every college I applied to. Ultimately, it was that awful math section. Without the math, I might not have had to endure everyone singing, "Be All You Can Be in the Army" to me during my senior year of high school. My bitterness aside, I still think it's a terrible idea to get rid of the SAT. But that's precisely what Richard C. Atkinson, wants to do. Why? Because, he single-handedly wants to destroy the No. 2 pencil business, of course. Just kidding, but his answer is equally absurd. Atkinson says he's worried that an "overemphasis on the SAT is distorting educational priorities and practice." He also says, "the test is perceived by many as unfair" and its results "can have devastating impact on the self-esteem and aspirations of young students." Now, if I perceive a 10-foot climbing wall on an Army obstacle course to be "unfair," does that mean it is? Just because I'm getting so fat that smaller pundits circle around me in a slow orbit, should we lower the wall? After all, when I'm out there on the obstacle course, sweating like a fat man at an all-you-can-eat pasta bar, I'm sure I will perceive the wall as unfair. But the fact is it would be just as unfair to have a low wall for some people and a high wall for others. More importantly, lowering the 10-foot wall to 2 feet wouldn't help anyone's self-esteem. The SAT is fair because it applies one universal objective standard to everybody. In a country with thousands of school districts, tens of thousands of schools and millions of college-bound kids, a single test that measures general intelligence, er, sorry, "aptitude" is indispensable. It's the only way, as imperfect as it is, to weigh an underprivileged kid from a crummy school against a spoiled kid from a private school. Grades and curriculums are important, but differences from teacher to teacher and school to school diverge wildly. Atkinson would replace the SAT with subject-specific achievement tests (SAT II's) and concentrate more on grades, activities, interviews, favorite colors and the kind of tree a prospective student would want to be if he or she were a tree. Of course, most of this stuff is already taken into account by admissions officers and rightly so. But, in a sense, the achievement tests that Atkinson favors are worse than the SATs. If he argues that the SATs are culturally biased - even though they're not - then specialized knowledge tests are even more so. A kid with well-educated parents, i.e. more privileged parents, has a bigger advantage on a test that measures general knowledge than a test that measures general ability. The same goes for kids from ritzy schools vs. poor ones. Generally a rich school will always do better prepping kids than a poor one on things like history or science. But with a general intelligence test - even a flawed one - a kid gets measured on his own merits. Grades and achievement tests are important, but if family and school fail, shouldn't a really bright kid have one way of shining? Or what about the kid, like me, who was just a screw up but did really well on the verbal section because he "wasted" all that time reading comic books? A friend who grew up in rural Appalachia thinks the SAT saved his life because it got him into the University of Virginia. Indeed, the SAT is a lifeline for some kids because it's the only thing that measures your chances for future performance, not your past hardships. Of course, what's really driving Atkinson is diversity mania. In 1996, California passed Proposition 209, which banned racial preferences in school admissions. As expected, some minorities became less well-represented at some top UC schools. Other ethnic groups improved their representative numbers. Unfortunately for the Atkinson, the ethnic groups that are "suffering" - meaning they just went to colleges where they aren't over their heads academically and were therefore more likely to graduate - are ones whose self-esteem is of paramount importance to guilt-ridden white folks with suede elbow patches. I have every confidence that these minority groups will one day do as well as any other on the SATs. But in the meantime, we shouldn't buy diversity on the cheap by sacrificing standards - and we shouldn't be designing social policy around groups in the first place. You aren't doing anyone any favors if you tell them they can get over a wall when they can't.