March 13 — 12:00 am, 2003

The SAT I: new test, old problems

When the SAT was first administered in the early part of the 20th century, the goal of the test preparers was simple: to open up admission of elite Eastern colleges to students other than those from wealthy, boarding school backgrounds.

It worked. The SAT has been a mainstay in college admissions since the 1940s.

For the past few decades, however, there have been bitter complaints that the SAT actually discriminates against certain groups in society, namely, members of many racial and ethnic groups, girls, and the poor. These complaints have gone largely unanswered by the College Board, the nonprofit organization that sponsors the SAT.

Unanswered, that is, until Richard C. Atkinson, president of the University of California system, announced in February 2001 that he found the SAT I virtually useless as a tool for determining qualified students and was seriously considering dropping it as a requirement for admissions to the largest public university system in the country.

It was not long after Atkinson’s announcement that the College Board had an announcement of its own: as of March 2005 there were going to be some major changes made to the test that more than 2 million high school students take every year.

On the "new" SAT, test-takers will no longer face analogy questions. Instead, there will be more critical reading passages from a wider variety of disciplines.

Quantitative comparisons on the math section of the test will also be a thing of the past. In its place will be more Algebra II questions, math that high school juniors and seniors are likely to be taking at the time of the test.

Perhaps the most major change to the new SAT will be the addition of an essay section to the test, the score of which will be an integral part of the total score. Thus, the highest possible score will change from 1600 to 2400, with a perfect score being 800 on three sections: math, critical reading, and writing.

But what do these changes mean in terms of fairness? Not much.

The essay, with its emphasis on stylistically vapid Standard English constructions, will work against students who attempt to use diction or creative expressions from outside mainstream culture. Students who need more than 30 minutes to write a polished essay will also be at a disadvantage.

Moreover, the savvy student will quickly realize that the essays with the highest scores will be those that do not vary much from the standard five-paragraph, introduction/supporting evidence/conclusion format.

The changes to the math section of the SAT I cannot possibly make for a fairer test. Students of color are concentrated in schools that lack a rigorous, college prep math sequence and are short on highly qualified math teachers. How can students who may not have even taken Algebra II classes ever hope to correctly answer these kinds of questions? The test results may end up telling us more about the inadequacies of high school math programs for students of color than the math aptitude of those students.

Despite its new face, the SAT I promises to be just as unfair as it has always been for large numbers of high school students in districts like Philadelphia. Colleges and universities should not continue to rely on such a biased admissions standard.

the notebook

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