The Scholastic Aptitude Test, taken by millions of high school seniors each year and required for admission to 90 percent of four-year colleges, may be headed for the endangered species list. Last month, the president of the University of California said he favors dropping the venerable SAT I -- which tests general verbal, reasoning and math skills -- in favor of more specialized tests of knowledge in individual subject areas. President Richard Atkinson worries that over-reliance on the SAT unfairly penalizes black and Hispanic students, who, on average, perform more poorly on the test than their white and Asian counterparts.
Atkinson is particularly sensitive on the issue. The California system, the largest in the country, has experienced a drop in black and Hispanic enrollees following the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996, which prohibited racial preferences that had been used for years to bolster minority enrollment.
This isn't the first time the SAT has come under attack. In the 1960s, critics charged that the test was racially biased. They pointed to questions they claimed were heavily loaded to favor white experiences, especially on the verbal section of the test. Blacks and Hispanics couldn't be expected to know words such as "regatta" or "cotillion," since presumably few of them owned yachts or attended debutante balls. Of course, most whites who take the test don't participate in regattas or attend the local cotillion either.
Nonetheless, the Education Testing Service, which administers the SAT, spent millions of dollars to make the test more minority-friendly. Test takers now can expect to answer questions on the works of Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, as well as William Faulkner and Jane Austen. But the changes have had almost no impact in closing the gap between the average scores of whites and Asians, at one end, and Hispanics and blacks at the other.
On average, black students score about 200 points lower (out of a possible 1600) on the SAT than whites or Asians, while Hispanics score almost 150 points lower. A debate rages about why this gap persists; indeed it has grown wider in the 90s. But one thing is clear: The gap is too great to ignore. So now Atkinson and others have decided perhaps the best way to solve the problem is destroy the evidence. If colleges don't require SATs, kids will quit taking them. Then the rest of us won't have to wonder why so many black and Hispanic students don't have sufficient grasp of algebra and geometry or large enough vocabularies to perform well on standardized tests.
But unless we're willing to dumb down the college curriculum even further than we already have over the last 30 years, getting rid of the SATs won't help more black and Hispanic students make it through four years of higher education -- especially not at the country's most competitive institutions. Unfortunately, many of these students (and a good many whites as well) are poorly prepared for college-level work. They don't know the vocabulary words included in the verbal section of the SAT because they don't read demanding literature that would teach them new words. And they haven't taken the math courses that would prepare them for the quantitative sections of the exam either. Some of this is the fault of a lousy public school system. But both parents and students deserve blame as well.
High school students have more disposable income and more free time today than ever before. Yet trolling the malls, listening to gangster rap, watching "Survivor," or playing "Mortal Combat" takes up the time that was once spent doing chores, working or reading. Meanwhile, parents have less time available to monitor their kids than they did in the past. Now, moms, too, work outside the home, often spending long hours on the job and commuting long distances, which means fewer hours spent supervising their children's activities. These same problems beset white and Asian families, but with a higher percentage of such families being headed by two parents, there are simply more adults to make sure the children are studying.
The SAT isn't to blame for black and Hispanic underachievement. And eliminating the test won't make the underlying obstacles to success disappear. The only thing that will fix it is more time spent hitting the books.