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National CrossTalk Fall 2001
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Measuring Academic Potential
Is the SAT II the Answer to the college admissions dilemma?

By Rebecca Zwick

Until the president of the University of California catapulted it to fame, most people had not even heard of the SAT II. President Richard Atkinson announced last February that he wanted to eliminate the use of the SAT I: Reasoning Test-the test we used to know as the Scholastic Aptitude Test-in UC admissions. He recommended that tests be developed which are directly tied to the college prep courses required of UC applicants. In the short term, he proposed an increased role for the SAT II in admissions decisions.

While the SAT I focuses on general verbal and mathematical skills, the SAT II: Subject Tests (formerly the College Board Achievement Tests) are intended to assess high school students' knowledge in particular areas. More than 20 SAT II tests are available, including writing, American History, math, physics, Spanish and Chinese. Like the SAT I, the SAT II exams are primarily multiple-choice, although the writing test does include an essay.

UC applicants must take the SAT II math and writing tests, as well as a third test of their own choosing. Currently, these three SAT II scores combined count twice as much as the SAT I in determining eligibility for admission to the UC system. (Each UC campus imposes its own individual admissions criteria as well.)

From Atkinson's point of view, the SAT II "begins to appropriate test for UC and other American universities since it tests students on specific subject areas that are well defined and readily described." A preliminary report from the UC Office of the President labels the SAT II "a fairer test for use in UC admissions than the SAT I."

Any mechanism for sorting individuals inevitably attracts criticism, however, and now that an expansion of its role is being considered, the SAT II is drawing fire. SAT II scores, like SAT I results, show large gaps among ethnic groups, and critics point out that performance on subject-area tests may be especially vulnerable to disparities in instructional quality.

But it is the SAT II language tests that are drawing the most attention. Native speakers of the languages included in the SAT II program have an opportunity to boost their chances of admission by choosing a language test as their third SAT II. This could benefit Latinos, a severely underrepresented group in academia, and possibly Asian Americans. But what about African Americans, who often attend poor schools and typically can not reap the second-language advantage? UC Regent Ward Connerly, best known as father of California's Proposition 209, which banned public-sector affirmative action, told the San Francisco Chronicle recently that putting a heavy emphasis on the SAT II disadvantages black students. "It seems to me that we really have built in a cultural bias," he said.

Before UC decides whether to eliminate the SAT I and grant a correspondingly larger role to the SAT II, it may be useful to take a closer look at two key issues. First, what would be the effect of such a move on the composition of the freshman class? Second, what are the implications of using a (non-English) language test in admissions decisions?

How would a greater role for the SAT II affect freshman class composition?

Fortunately, we can do more than conjecture about the relation between the SAT I and the SAT II. Two recent analyses-one by the UC Office of the President and one by the College Board-found a very strong association (a correlation of .84) between the SAT I (verbal and math combined) and the SAT II (a composite of all SAT IIs taken by the applicant).

The College Board study, by Brent Bridgeman, Nancy Burton and Frederick Cline, used data from 14,000 students at ten colleges, including four UC campuses, to compare the effects of implementing various admissions criteria. High school grades were used in combination with either SAT I or SAT II scores to select the top two-thirds of candidates, who constituted the hypothetical freshman classes. (Although the admissions criteria were applied to students who were, in fact, already enrolled in college, the analyses are nevertheless informative about the effects of alternative screening processes.)

An admissions model that used SAT I scores was compared to a model that used scores on all SAT IIs taken by each candidate. (Both models also included high school grades. All test scores received equal weight, and grades received as much weight as all test scores combined.) For 86 percent of the students, admissions decisions were found to be the same, regardless of which model was used. Not surprisingly, the overlapping "freshman classes" produced by each model were very similar in terms of average freshman grades and ethnic composition. The SAT II model yielded a class with a slightly greater percentage of Latino students (eight percent versus 6.3 percent), and a slightly smaller percentage of Asian American and white students, than the SAT I model. The percentage of African American students was the same for both models (1.6 percent).

The finding that the SAT I and SAT II produce similar freshman classes is not without precedent. In their 1988 book, "The Case Against the SAT," James Crouse and Dale Trusheim compared admissions models involving the SAT I and the SAT II (under its earlier name), and concluded that "in most colleges, scores on ETS's achievement tests are almost interchangeable with SAT scores."

Should language tests be used in admissions decisions? In the College Board study, using the SAT II Spanish test in admissions decisions was found to increase the percentage of Latinos in the freshman class. (No parallel effect occurred for Asian Americans, but only eight percent took Asian language tests, while nearly half the Latino students took the Spanish test.) When language tests were excluded from consideration, the SAT II admissions model yielded no more Latinos than the SAT I model.

This study suggests that including the SAT II language tests in admissions decisions may have potential as a strategy for increasing the Latino presence on campus (though it does nothing to alleviate the under representation of other groups, such as African Americans). But merely increasing Latino representation is not the intent of the University of California, according to a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle from C. Judson King, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. "The change has nothing to do with benefiting particular groups and everything to do with measuring academic potential," he said.

What does the College Board study say about the academic success of Latino students selected with and without using Spanish test scores? An analysis that focused on Latino students who took the Spanish test revealed that those selected using the "SAT II with Spanish test" model were less likely to receive freshman GPAs of at least 2.5 (the researchers' definition of academic success) than those selected using the SAT I model (71 percent versus 82 percent). The "SAT II without Spanish test" model yielded an intermediate success rate of 76 percent. (This figure was derived by combining the authors' results for Mexican American and "Other Latino" students.)

Why would inclusion of the Spanish test in the screening criteria yield a lower success rate for the admitted students? The likely reason is that most Latino students who took the Spanish test learned Spanish at home, rather than through formal academic training. Skills acquired at home, obviously, are no less valuable than skills acquired at school. But when a language is learned in the natural course of family interaction, skill in that language is less informative about students' academic skills and therefore less useful in predicting subsequent academic success.

An interesting irony emerges in considering the role of language tests in the Atkinson proposal. On one hand, the SAT II is described as more equitable than the SAT I because it focuses on content that is learned in school. On the other hand, students who take tests in their native languages are rewarded for knowing material that they did not learn in the classroom, material that is instead a part of their culture. This situation is oddly reminiscent of the familiar claim that white middle-class students have a built-in advantage on standardized tests because their own culture is ingrained in the tests.

Of course, using language tests in admissions may nevertheless be a good thing. First of all, many SAT II takers have learned second languages in the classroom. In any case, maximization of the expected grades of the freshman class should certainly not be the sole purpose of an admissions policy. According to UC Provost King, "UC faculty has deemed mastery of a second language to be an important skill for college-bound students." Indeed, bilingual students can enrich the college environment, and a policy that rewards bilingualism can encourage second-language learning, which is useful in many careers and in community service.

SAT II Pros and Cons Let's consider what we know about the pros and cons of eliminating the SAT I in favor of a greater role for the SAT II.

  • First, because the tests are closely related, a heavier reliance on the SAT II is unlikely to have much impact on the academic competence and diversity of the freshman class, or on the score disparities among ethnic groups.

  • Second, exams that have demonstrable ties to school learning are often considered more equitable than "aptitude" tests, so even if they don't help colleges to pick better entering classes, they could have an advantage from a public-relations standpoint. After all, UC President Atkinson opposes the SAT I partly because it is perceived as unfair and is viewed as being "akin to an IQ test." On the down side, the SAT II exams are not tailored to the curriculum of any particular school district and will inevitably include material that is not taught-or is poorly taught-in some schools. This potential source of inequity is sure to draw more attention if the prominence of the SAT II is increased.

  • Third, the inclusion of language tests in admissions criteria needs to be evaluated
  • carefully. Critics have suggested that this strategy is intended as a backdoor affirmative action measure; its fairness and effectiveness for this purpose are doubtful. But if UC considers the recruitment of a bilingual freshman class to be valuable in itself, then including these tests is justifiable.

  • Finally, another rationale for relying on subject-based admissions tests is that it may improve classroom teaching. Ideally, if admissions tests focused on course content, the much-deplored practice of "teaching to the test" could become indistinguishable from just plain teaching. This is perhaps the most compelling argument in favor of tests like the SAT II.

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