The Chronicle of Higher Education
Monday, February 19, 2001
By JEFFREY BRAINARD
(Washington) In a proposal likely to fuel the debate about the relationship between standardized tests and race, the president of the University of California recommended on Sunday that the system stop requiring high-school students to take the math and verbal SAT to gain admission to the institution. Richard C. Atkinson said that the test is "distorting educational priorities," and that the university should adopt a less quantitative, "holistic" set of admissions criteria that recognize a wider range of academic and individual achievement.
Mr. Atkinson said that the math and verbal SAT do not accurately measure students' mastery of the high-school curriculum, and that students spend too much time preparing for the tests. However, he proposed retaining for now the requirement that applicants take another version of the SAT that tests specific subject areas.
The proposal, made in a speech to the American Council on Education, an umbrella group for academe, is expected to reverberate nationally because the University of California system is one of the nation's largest public institutions, with 170,000 students, and two of its campuses -- Berkeley and Los Angeles -- are among the most selective public universities. If the regents and faculty accepted his suggestions, California would be the first large public university with competitive admissions to drop the general math and verbal SAT, also known as the SAT 1. The change would not take effect until the fall of 2003.
Although Mr. Atkinson insisted on Sunday that his SAT proposal was not an affirmative-action measure, the move may have the effect of improving the admissions prospects of students from minority groups and low-income populations, who on average score lower on the tests than do other students. Enrollments of such students have dropped at the university's Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses since the university's regents barred consideration of race and gender in admissions and hiring in 1995, and California voters passed Proposition 209, which barred state agencies from considering race, in 1996.
California has since considered other ways to increase minority enrollments, including a plan, to take effect this fall, in which the university admits the top 4 percent of the graduating class of every high school in the state, regardless of their standardized-test scores, if they have completed required coursework. But over all, those measures have not significantly improved minority enrollments at the most selective campuses, and minority legislators and advocates for minority students have continued to pressure the university to take further steps.
Asked if he hoped the move would increase minority enrollments, Mr. Atkinson said that a major issue facing the university was "to make the university more accessible to low-income students, and when you [do that], you're picking up an ever-increasing percentage of underrepresented students. Hopefully, all of our efforts will make the university more accessible to a broader range of students."
In his speech, delivered to hundreds of college presidents and other officials, Mr. Atkinson said he wanted to make the admissions process more fair for all students. He pointedly questioned the value of the SAT as a predictor of students' ability in college. And he said the university's reliance on it had pressured students, parents, and teachers to focus too much attention on preparing for it. He called the competition for high SAT scores "the educational equivalent of a nuclear arms race."
Mr. Atkinson, a cognitive psychologist who specializes in memory and learning, said he had worried about the SAT for several years. "Last year," he said, "my concerns coalesced." He recounted visiting an upscale private school where 12-year-old students spend hours each month studying verbal analogies to prepare for the verbal portion of the SAT -- at the expense of developing reading and writing abilities.
He also noted that members of minority groups and others have called the test unfair -- in part because people from lower-income backgrounds don't have access to the test-preparation courses and quality teaching that are available to many wealthy students.
The overreliance by universities on the test "is not compatible with the American view on how merit should be defined and opportunities distributed," he said. "The strength of American society has been its belief that actual achievement should be what matters most."
Mr. Atkinson called for the development of admissions tests that would "create a stronger connection between what students accomplished in high school and their likelihood of being admitted to U.C., and focus student attention on mastery of subject matter rather than test preparation."
Under his proposal, applicants to his institution would continue to be required to take the so-called SAT 2 exams, which test students' knowledge in topical areas -- writing, mathematics, and one other subject of their choice. Mr. Atkinson said those tests have limitations, but are closer to the content-oriented tests he envisions than is the SAT 1.
Currently, California admissions officials require students to take both types of SAT's, and combine those scores with high-school grade-point averages to attain overall numerical scores. Depending on the campus, 50 to 75 percent of students are now admitted to the university based solely on those scores.
Mr. Atkinson also noted a study that examined the relative ability of the SAT and grade-point averages to predict the future academic success of applicants to the university. The study found that the use of the general math and verbal SAT test, in combination with grade-point averages and the SAT 2, did not provide significantly more predictive power than the combination of the G.P.A. and SAT 2 alone.
Mr. Atkinson acknowledged that a shift to more "holistic" evaluation of applicants would be difficult. As the state's most-prominent public institution, the University of California system receives many more applications than it has admissions slots, particularly at its more selective campuses. Large public universities have traditionally depended on the SAT or comparable tests as an objective and streamlined way to make at least the initial cut of the many applications they receive. Officials at such institutions have said that getting rid of standardized tests and depending more on "holistic" measures of student quality, as smaller, private institutions typically do, would require significantly larger admissions offices.
Mr. Atkinson's proposal drew some praise, and some caution, from the college officials at Sunday's meeting. "He might be right in California," said Michael F. Adams, president of the University of Georgia, who added that Mr. Atkinson's "objective is laudable." But Mr. Adams said he was not yet prepared to make that recommendation for Georgia.
Selective institutions will continue to need a "common measuring stick" of academic achievement, to account for differences in quality among different high schools, he said. But not enough students, especially ones from minority groups, have taken the
SAT 2 in Georgia to judge whether it can accurately predict academic achievement in college, he said.
Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, which owns the SAT, called the change proposed by Mr. Atkinson "a mistake." The SAT 1 can help admissions officers evaluating applicants holistically only by giving them additional information to consider, he said. He acknowledged disparities in test scores, but said: "As do all high-quality assessments, the SAT scores reflect unfairness in our educational system. It is urgent that we focus our energy on raising standards for everyone, rather than on eliminating tools that help reveal unequal educational opportunities."
The proposal drew praise from those who have worked to abolish the use of the SAT 1 in college admissions. "For the nation's most prestigious public university system to drop its SAT requirement could well initiate a domino effect" among other university systems, said Robert A. Schaeffer, public-education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, also known as FairTest. "The SAT has been overpromoted, oversold by its advocates to the point that it might be collapsing under its own unfulfilled promises."
Michael Cowan, chairman of California's Academic Council, the steering committee for the system-wide Academic Senate, predicted that faculty members would embrace Mr. Atkinson's goals, but would want more information about his specific methods.
"There's no question that first and foremost in the faculty's mind will be to do nothing that reduces the quality" of California's student body, said Mr. Cowan, a professor of American studies and literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
"One of the major faculty concerns will probably be monitoring this [change] so if we're not achieving what we want to do, we can further modify our admissions criteria."
Mr. Cowan said he was especially impressed with Mr. Atkinson's proposal for more holistic admissions criteria, which would give greater weight to applicants' special talents, leadership, motivation, and how they responded to life challenges. But Mr. Cowan noted that it would need to be backed up with a commitment to expand the budget for the admissions staff, to handle the extra work.