US: Controversial test is due to be revamped

August 22, 2003


Controversy over standardised university admissions examinations in the US has made them as much a test of wills as a test of student aptitude, writes Jon Marcus.

On one side of the debate are organisations that administer the tests. On the other are a growing number of universities that have chosen to forgo them as a measure of an applicant's potential, preferring to consider high-school grades, interviews, creative portfolios and other measures.

Nearly 400 US universities have de-emphasised the standardised tests in their admissions procedures, or no longer require them. Several others - including the University of California - have threatened to join this group.

In response, the College Board, an organisation of US universities that administers the SAT I assessment test, has promised to revamp it by 2005, adding an essay test and expanding the maths test to include algebra.

"The current SAT I is the most rigorously and well-researched test in the world, and the new SAT I will only improve the test's strengths by placing the highest emphasis on the most important college success skills - reading and mathematics and, now, writing," said Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board.

The SAT, which originally stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test, has been repeatedly revamped over its 76-year history, most recently in 1994 when the use of calculators was allowed and longer reading passages added.

The 138-question multiple-choice test measures verbal and mathematical reasoning. The top score in the maths test and in the verbal test is 800, with the maximum total score being 1,600; the average result is 1,020. It is taken by about 1.3 million students, who can retake the test as many times as they like for $28.50 (£17.90). The College Board earns an estimated $125 million a year from the exam.

The second university admissions test is the ACT (American College Test), used in the Midwest, Southwest and deep South. Some 1.3 million students take this test, which consists of 215 multiple-choice questions. The maximum score is 36; the average, 20.8.

Controversy stems from the disparate outcomes in both tests. Wealthy students score higher than poor students, whites higher than blacks, and men higher than women. The average ACT score for whites is 21.7 and for blacks 16.8, for instance. The poorest students score 17.8, compared with 23.3 for the wealthiest. Whites score 1,060 on the SAT, blacks 857; men score 1,041, women 1,002.

"The tests reward the ability to quickly answer superficial questions that do not require real thought," said the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. "They do not measure the ability to think or create."

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