Bye-Bye S.A.T.

Posted: May 02, 2002 12:00 AM
The academic establishment (most notably in the outward visible form of University of California President Richard Atkinson) has declared war on the Scholastic Assessment Test. The Princeton Review Board, which owns and produces the SAT, has obligingly agreed to commit hara-kiri: Bye-bye SAT.

Something called the SAT will linger around for a while. But the test's 50-year reign as an instrument of democratization of America's elite universities has clearly come to a crashing end.

Why? Because at public colleges, the SAT has increasingly proved a fatal barrier to affirmative action. To admit enough black (and to a lesser extent, Latino) students, universities had to accept minority applicants with far lower SAT scores than white or Asian students. Judges began to balk at such blatant racial classifications in a government institution. University administrators such as Atkinson could read the writing on the wall.

So Atkinson announced the University of California system no longer wants to rely on the old grades-plus-SAT formula. "It seems only right that students should be judged on what they have accomplished in four years of high school, not on how they rate on an ill-defined measure of aptitude or intelligence," said Atkinson. The Princeton Review Board announced it is changing the format of the SAT, eliminating or reducing those pesky analogies that measure something -- call it intelligence, call it cognitive ability, call it academic aptitude -- academia once valued but is now embarrassed by. In the future, the SAT will become less of an aptitude and more of an achievement test, like dozens of other tests designed to measure academic knowledge, not academic ability.

And it's worth pausing a moment to contemplate the social effects of this mini-earthquake in the ivy tower. For the old SAT, the now-despised aptitude test, played a key and important role in American social and educational history. The SAT was used by elite colleges to identify students of unusual ability, regardless of social background. Of course, student grades are a better predictor of performance than the SAT alone (students who underachieve in high school underachieve in college too). But the SAT allowed colleges to pierce the veil of rising grade inflation to separate the truly gifted from the merely hard-working. It transformed Yale and Harvard and their equivalents from a WASP club to an egghead club. The SAT allowed universities to identify achievers who had high academic aptitude anywhere around the country. Smart kids with good grades anywhere in the country had a shot at the ivies.

Now a shot at the ivies is vastly overrated. Students accepted at, say, Princeton who go to the University of Oregon do just as well, it turns out, 10 years down the road. There are many roads to success in America, which is one of the great things about this country. And the high-tech revolution is shaking up the old hierarchies, even if many of them do not realize it yet. But elite colleges have maintained their status (and their huge price tags) in large part because of the SAT, which allowed the colleges with old money and reputation to gather together and brand the high-aptitude kids whose abilities are increasingly valuable in a high-tech world.

What will happen to the Yale or the U-C Berkeley brand when these colleges can no longer tell who the really, really smart kids are? It is not the biggest problem in the world, the decline of elite universities. Other institutions who resist the trend or who spot the market opportunity will no doubt rise to take their place. But it is a social spectacle worth watching: Elite eggheads shooting themselves in the foot.