Revamping the SAT
Will the modified test make the grade?
The redesigned SAT (which I'll call "SAT 2005" in recognition of its intended completion date) will differ from the current SAT I in three major ways. First, it will include a writing section consisting of multiple-choice questions on grammar and usage, plus an essay that students will have 20 to 30 minutes to complete. Second, it will replace the much-maligned verbal analogies items with short reading comprehension questions. Finally, the math section will be beefed up to include more advanced content. Currently, the math questions are based on first-year high school algebra, plus some geometry. SAT 2005 will add items based on a second year of high school algebra.
According to Atkinson, these changes will "focus student attention on mastery of subject matter rather than mastery of test-taking skills." But will the modified SAT make the grade? Right now, SAT 2005 exists only as a gleam in the College Board's eye, and many questions about the effects of the changes will be impossible to answer until the exam is actually developed and field-tested. But considering the many criteria the university and the College Board have established, it may be hard for the revamped test to satisfy everyone.
Just what is expected of SAT 2005? Let's consider the UC side first. In February 2001, Atkinson announced that he wanted to eliminate the use of the SAT I in University of California admissions, advocating an immediate switch to college admissions tests that are tied closely to the high school curriculum.
One year after Atkinson's statement, a university-wide faculty committee, the Board on Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS) released a policy statement that essentially echoed Atkinson's view. BOARS recommended that the university replace the currently accepted admissions tests with three new exams based on California's high school curriculum-a "core achievement examination" in reading, writing and math, plus two one-hour subject-area tests.
The committee, which concluded that achievement-oriented tests are "philosophically preferable to tests that purport to measure aptitude," wanted to convey the message that "the best way to prepare for postsecondary education is to take a rigorous and comprehensive college-preparatory curriculum and to excel in this work."
The February 2002 policy paper stipulated that the UC admissions test should be fair across demographic groups, should measure "mastery of content in UC-approved high school preparatory coursework, and should provide information to students, parents and educators enabling them to identify academic strengths and weaknesses, [and] should be demonstrably useful in predicting student success at UC."
Although the modifications it outlined were influenced by UC's demands, the College Board made it clear that it had its own set of requirements for SAT 2005 as well: The test must measure "reasoning based on critical reading, writing and math skills related to college success." It must also maintain its psychometric quality, including the ability to predict college success, and must not show larger score disparities between white and "underrepresented" students than the current SAT I. Finally, it must be scored on a scale equivalent to the one used for the SAT I so that it can "maintain trend data across years."
Can a reborn SAT live up to both UC's demands and the College Board's own requirements? In fact, the many goals for the new test embody several substantial dilemmas:
If the test is now modified to include math questions that rely on a second year of high school algebra, SAT 2005 scores could be more sensitive to differences in instructional quality than SAT I scores. This could lead to greater score disparities among ethnic and socioeconomic groups, a result that would be undesirable from the perspective of both UC and the College Board.
The University of California Regents are expected to support the use of the newly modified SAT at UC. But these tough questions about the SAT and, more broadly, about the role and purpose of college admissions testing, will still need to be resolved. Educators, politicians and the press are sure to continue debating these issues at least until SAT 2005 makes its debut.
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