Talk Story


Overdue SAT test changes
likely to be for the better

LIVING in Radio-Free Kalama Valley, my neighbors and I have to put up with AM talk radio to stay in touch with the world beyond the Molokai Channel.

So, I first heard about proposed changes in the SAT college admissions exam from Hugh Hewitt, the self-appointed "Voice of Reason in the West." Voice of the Paranoid Right, is more like it, but everybody has to make a living and nobody since Ronald Reagan has lost a nickel ridiculing liberals on the radio.

Anyway, last Friday Hewitt was ranting about the "dumbing down" of SAT I, the test that generationås of high school students have taken to get into college.

Apparently, the nonprofit, New York-based College Board was knuckling under to pressure from liberal University of California educators hell-bent on furthering their political agenda and lowering the bar for entry to American temples of learning.

With Western Civilization As We Know It hanging in the balance, I thought I'd better check this out.

TRUE ENOUGH, College Board trustees asked staffers last week to consider revising the test. If approved by the trustees next June, the changes would take effect for high school seniors graduating in 2006.

"We're not creating a whole new test; we're making some improvements," Gaston Claperton, College Board president told The New York Times. "I would be surprised if more than half the test changed."

Yes, the reasons to change include leveling the playing field for women and minorities. Years ago, the U.S. Dept. of Education's Office of Civil Rights asked the College Board to add a written exam because women weren't winning their share of National Merit Scholarships. Women usually do better on written tests than men.

The OCR also noted that black enrollment at the UC law schools fell dramatically after voters outlawed affirmative action in California, and questioned whether the SAT discriminates against blacks and Hispanics who, as a group, score lower than whites and Asians. Arbitrarily continuing a policy to the disadvantage of a racial group without good reason could lead to charges of illegal discrimination.

But University of California administrators say the main reason to change is that the SAT ought to reflect more of what is actually learned in high school classrooms. According to UC President Richard Atkinson, a college entrance exam ought to measure achievement, not "ill-defined notions of aptitude."

Last year, Atkinson proposed California replace the SAT with a new test based on the state high school curriculum. Such a test wouldn't unduly favor students from middle- and upper-income households.

According to Caperton, the threat of losing 178,000-student University of California, his company's biggest customer, hastened changes in the works since 1993. Other colleges, including Bates, Bowdoin and Mount Holyoke, already have dropped the SAT, according to the Times.

"When Dr. Atkinson said he didn't want the University of California to use the SAT, it really speeded us up, and heightened what we're doing," Caperton told the Los Angeles Times.

THE CHANGES that trustees will vote on at their June meeting include adding a handwritten short essay and toughening up math problems. The analogy portion of the verbal test might be cut back or dropped entirely in favor of more reading comprehension questions, Caperton said.

Analogies test a student's grasp of nuances of meaning in the English language. SAT critics say they put students for whom English is a second language at a disadvantage.

In case you, like me, took the SAT 300 years ago, here's an analogy question from a practice test:

Imitation is to travesty as ...

(a) comedy is to cartoon

(b) scan is to sketch

(c) portrait is to parody

(d) player is to pantomime

(e) mockery is to ersatz

The College Board wants to make a revised SAT test acceptable both to California and the rest of the country. Since schools want to "measure in-state students and out-of-state students by the same yardstick," Caperton said. "Transportability is really important."

An important, intended consequence is that the new SAT should focus more attention on what is actually being taught in the high schools, raising standards and making the national educational system more balanced.

Nicholas Lemann, whose book "The Big Test" documents the history of the SAT, says making it an achievement test is "a lever to improve teaching at schools with systematically low scores and a much healthier signal than a curriculum-free aptitude test. ... The way to do better on it is to learn what's being taught in the classroom."

The correct answer, by the way, is (c).

John Flanagan is the Star-Bulletin's contributing editor.
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