World view: Dare we toss out the test?

March 30, 2001

A move away from aptitude tests for admissions has reignited debates over access, writes Sheldon Rothblatt.

The president of the multi-campus University of California wants to drop the Sat, a national aptitude test that high school students take for admission to United States colleges and universities. Like almost all education controversies of the past 30 or 40 years, the issues are fundamentally social and political, thus the vehemence of debate.

Lest offshore observers are misled into thinking that the entire nation is up in arms, a caveat is in order. The test is supposed to be a reliable indicator of promise, superior to any record of classroom performance. But it is used as a serious selection instrument by probably only 100 or 200 of some 3,500 institutions, normally those facing the most applications. At the campuses of the University of California, the Sat accounts for only about 20 per cent of the criteria used for freshman admissions, yet critics think that even this small component handicaps low-income and some minority students.

The elimination of ethnic and gender set-asides in the 1990s by UC's board of regents and the passage of a state referendum may have led to a fall in the numbers of Hispanic and African-American undergraduates at the Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses, but not in the system as a whole. Students denied admission to the most select branches have been taken at the other campuses. Yet a stock-market mentality prevails. An obsession with daily fluctuations diverts attention from long-run trends, adjustments and other causal factors.

Standardised admissions testing goes back to about 1900, when each college or university had its own entry requirements. Reformers of the Progressive era seized on the device of an independent test to determine ability, but, unlike Europe, the US had no central authority to establish a baseline or passing score. Institutions, especially if they were private, ignored the test or interpreted the results to suit themselves. They still do.

Elite public universities, continually under intense legislative scrutiny, lack this freedom. As the social and ethnic composition of governments is changing, admissions criteria are especially suspect, attacked as exclusive and unfair. The Sat's key components, verbal and mathematical tests, cause problems for many members of California's diverse population, which includes large numbers of recent immigrant children enrolled on English as a second language programme.

Until just a few years ago, the Sat was called the Scholastic Aptitude Test. The name change is significant. Aptitude testing, with its roots in IQ examinations and eugenical theories of racial capacity, produced a furious controversy over whether innate intelligence could be measured. This in turn led to charges, still widely articulated, that any and all tests are culturally biased and, therefore, discriminatory. African-American and Latino students do significantly less well on the Sat than white and Asian-American students, but they do better on it than in the classroom. However, the highest-scoring students are drawn overwhelmingly from affluent families.

Both secular and religion-affiliated schools have grown remarkably in the US in reaction to the declining standards and overall pedestrian tone of state schools, which are now also dangerous.

Dilemmas abound, all of them connected to the issues of affirmative action that have dominated the politics of education since the 1970s. Do away with the Sat and the targeted minorities lose even that support. Retain the test and achievement gaps remain. Devise another, one more flexible. What then? A national measure, however imperfect, is lost, administrative costs rise and, for all one knows, the familiar spread and disparities will persist.

An alternative exists in a temporary measure proposed by the president of UC until another test can be introduced. He is concerned that the existing test constrains the high-school curriculum, leading to drill and boredom. The alternative would be more content-based, less of an aptitude test. Critics of top-down examinations have always complained that they drive the curriculum below. That is true, but that is their avowed purpose. No test can be devised that totally eliminates differential effects of some kind. Nor, in a free society, can parents be prevented from seeking the maximum educational benefits for their children. If these are not provided at public expense, substitutes are sought.

Getting the right mix of admissions criteria and quality is hard. The need for universities of the highest standard, centres of excellence to nurture the talent that underpins modern conceptions of a good society, has never been greater. At the same time, broadening the opportunity structure is essential, or the survival of any democratic political system is in doubt. Consequently, many countries have modified their traditional gatekeeping examinations, but no one appears satisfied.

The solution pioneered in California is to guarantee universal admission to higher education through a trinary system of ascending public colleges and universities tied together by a process of upward student transfer. That system remains in place. It provides a mechanism for mobility for anyone who needs a second or third chance and whose life is not to be permanently overshadowed by aptitude tests or weak classroom performance. Transfer in UC's system is not as competitive as freshman entrance, but it still requires initiative, ambition and persistence.

The Sat furore cries out for some sort of diversion, such as a good old-fashioned football scandal. As it happens, one is brewing at Berkeley. But anon.

Sheldon Rothblatt is professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley.

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