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National CrossTalk Summer 2002
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

3 of 3 Stories

Revamping the SAT
Will the modified test make the grade?

By Rebecca Zwick

Richard Atkinson, president of the University of California, has pronounced himself "delighted by the College Board's decision" in June to approve substantial changes to the SAT I, calling it "a major event in the history of standardized testing."

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."

In late March, when discussions were underway among faculty, administrators and the UC Board of Regents about the specifications for the new California test, the College Board made a stunning announcement: It proposed a set of changes to the SAT-those just approved-which, not coincidentally, seemed very much in line with UC's criteria. This meant that UC could avoid the enormous burden and expense of developing and implementing a new test and, as a bonus, could take credit for influencing a testing giant. The College Board stood to gain too, of course, if it could avert the loss of a big customer.

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:

  • Can the SAT measure students' mastery of California's college preparatory courses and still be a reasoning test? By including more advanced math content, adding a writing section, and substituting short reading items for verbal analogies, the revamped test will be somewhat better aligned with the college prep courses UC applicants are expected to take.

    But as a membership organization consisting of more than 4,000 educational institutions with a wide range of views about university admissions criteria, the College Board can only move so far: Obviously, a test that is too focused on California's needs would alienate high schools and colleges elsewhere. Although the Board says that SAT 2005 will "reflect changes in classroom instruction," it is careful not to describe the new version of the exam as an achievement test.

  • Can the SAT assess writing skills and advanced math skills without increasing score gaps among ethnic, socioeconomic and language groups? Ironically, a plan to add an essay component to the SAT 12 years ago met with objections from the University of California on just these grounds. According to a 1990 Education Week article, the essay requirement came "under severe criticism...from California education and legislative officials who [said] the revisions [would] adversely affect recent immigrants and students whose native language is not English." Ultimately, UC's opposition was instrumental in squelching the proposed inclusion of a writing component in the main portion of the SAT.

  • What about the math section of SAT 2005? In the past, the SAT has prided itself on its focus on math problem-solving skills, rather than specific course content. According to a recent College Board publication, "If you know the basic properties of common geometric figures, if you have some basic familiarity with algebra, and if you have a basic understanding of properties of numbers, then you know enough to take this test."

    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.

  • Can the SAT serve both as a test of academic strengths and weaknesses and as a predictor of college grades? UC and the College Board agree that SAT 2005 must continue to be useful in predicting college performance. But UC would also like the test to serve a diagnostic purpose-to provide information about students' mastery of specific skills. To give precise and useful diagnostic information, a test must include a sufficient number of items in each skill area. Presumably the skills of interest to UC are those included in California's high school curriculum. To maintain a test's ability to predict college grades, however, it is essential to include questions that are closely related to the demands of college courses. These two principles of test development will not necessarily lead to the same set of test questions. A test designed to maximize prediction of college grades will not necessarily be an ideal diagnostic test, and vice versa.

  • Can the SAT make the desired changes and still produce scores equivalent to those on the current test? Will all the changes, considered collectively, mean that SAT 2005 is measuring something different from the current SAT I? If so, how will it be possible to "maintain trend data across years." If not, are the changes worth making?

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.


Rebecca Zwick is a professor at the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the author of "Fair Game? The Use of Standardized Admissions Tests in Higher Education." She also serves as chair of the College Board's SAT committee, but the views she expresses here are her own.

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