TEST CASE: UC Versus the SAT

Matthew Belloni is Notes editor of the Southern California Law Review at USC Law School and a former Opinion editor of the Daily Californian at UC Berkeley.

The University of California may have accomplished a task not possible in 30 years of education reform: convincing the test-making wizards at the College Board to radically overhaul their most hallowed and feared exam, the SAT I.

And we can follow the money to figure out why.

The nine-campus, 130,000-undergraduate UC system is the largest and most prestigious public university in the country, so when its president and regents began discussing how to eliminate the SAT and replace it with a test that more accurately reflects what is taught in the classroom, the College Board took notice.

UC President Richard C. Atkinson, in a bold speech last year, said he does not believe the current SAT evaluates what California students are taught in K-12 classrooms. He went on to recommend that the UCs should “require only standardized tests that assess mastery of specific subject areas rather than undefined notions of ‘aptitude’ or ‘intelligence.’” He suggested that applicants should no longer be required to take the SAT I. Earlier this year, acting on Atkinson’s suggestions, the UC Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools proposed dropping the SAT in favor of a core exam that would include a writing portion and test material taught in classes that make up the course requirements for UC.

Rather than lose its biggest client, the East Coast testing organization has taken swift action. Recently, fewer than 10 days after the regents discussed the possibility of switching to a new exam, College Board President Gaston Caperton announced that the company is considering major adjustments to the SAT, including possibly trimming or removing the analogy section and adding a writing portion. College Board officials are even working directly with UC to develop a new exam to reflect its concerns. The biggest change in the SAT’s history may occur because the largest user of the test has flexed its collective muscle to bully the College Board into adopting its preferred rules.

“To the extent that this is anything but a business decision, the rest is just ornamental,” said Jay Rosner, executive director of the Princeton Review Foundation, the public-interest arm of the huge test preparation company. “You have a business, and a client that represents 15% of your business is telling you your product isn’t working. You want revenues to drop 15%? You want to lay off 15% of your workforce?”


The ethics of the College Board’s sudden courtship of UC seem questionable on both sides. Atkinson’s commendable goal is to craft an exam that better rewards students who pay attention in high school, eventually elevating the level of K-12 learning to meet the standards of the new test. Yet instead of engaging in a national dialogue with testing companies and other prominent education officials, the UC system has threatened to pull out of the SAT if its demands are not met, essentially grabbing the reins in any negotiations to come.

College Board officials claim the changes currently on the table are part of the evolving nature of the test, which underwent revisions in 1993 and 1994 . Yet the timing of its decision is fairly transparent. “UC is their biggest customer. If it wants changes, it can order changes,” said author Nicholas Lemann, a proponent of Atkinson’s ideas and the author of “The Big Test,” a critical history of the SAT. “To keep UC, the College Board will make the changes it wants.”

The College Board is a member organization representing more than 4,000 colleges, universities and high schools. Its board of trustees, which includes representatives from schools nationwide, voted late last month to form a commission to discuss the issue. Any proposed changes to the SAT will wind their way through committees and be discussed extensively among the member schools, and Caperton himself recently sent an e-mail to the trustees warning of a looming debate on the issue. Yet, so far, the testing service has met only with UC policymakers, and their concerns seem to be driving the debate. If there exists any serious opposition to the most major changes in the SAT’s history, it has yet to be voiced publicly by a university leader.

According to Kris Zavoli, a College Board official who has participated in the first meetings with UC, no changes will occur until the new test wins widespread support. “We have 4,000 members and we will take the proposal to different audiences,” she said. “We won’t make any changes until the full membership looks at this.” But unless policy boards at other schools are brought into the debate now, the board of trustees will be presented with a document designed largely to appease UC, and this may not be in the best interests of schools nationwide.

The SAT has always had problems. It’s a peculiar exam, full of arbitrary vocabulary and contextual analogies. It’s designed to measure everything without actually testing anything. Educators and activists have for years complained that the test is racist, classist, and does not accurately reflect a student’s potential for achievement. The exam is particularly tough for those without money to pay for expensive preparation courses that teach the ins-and-outs of how to beat it. Yet despite some tinkering--antonyms have been dropped and the names in questions have morphed from Mike to Miguel and Warner to Wang--the test has remained relatively unchanged, still acting as a de facto I.Q. test for college-bound students.

SAT proponents nationally say it’s this universal quality that makes the test such a good indicator of potential achievement. Despite the wide variety of education strategies and the varying meaning of grades, all students eventually are evaluated for college admission using at least one common gauge.

This universal standard would still exist in a new exam, but the question is, whose goals will the test reflect? Right now, the University of California is playing a central if not dominant role in creating the standard upon which the rest of the country will be judged. UC’s idea of a quality high-school education may soon help determine who gets into college in other states.

Atkinson is to be commended for beginning the dialogue on whether the SAT truly serves its purpose. Most people agree it could be better tailored to test what students should know to succeed in college. But his strategy of pressuring the College Board to adopt UC’s standards is a strong-arm tactic that exposes both UC’s level of influence and the College Board’s willingness to sell out.

Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of admissions at Harvard University, said she believes the SAT has its shortcomings, but she wonders whether a new exam emphasizing what students learn in high school will stray from the very reason her school relies on the SAT. “We try not to over-reward preparation. A college wants to know two things: one, how well prepared a student is, and two, what kind of potential students have to be successful and use their education.” Lewis said she believes the current SAT, for instance, does a good job of predicting the intellectual success of a student who may not have attended a strong high school. But Harvard and other schools are taking a wait-and-see approach, for the moment, largely because any new SAT is not expected to see the lead of a No. 2 pencil until 2006. “That’s plenty of time to learn about this plan,” Lewis said.

Perhaps in shifting the focus to what is taught in the classroom, Atkinson cares less about ensuring quality in Harvard’s freshman class and more about providing incentives to improve K-12 instruction in California and nationwide. Yet the independent, curriculum-devoid value of the SAT may be a casualty of the new test, and it remains unclear if this is a good thing. Indeed, the College Board’s Zavoli said recent surveys suggest that because of rampant grade inflation, the current SAT is more useful than ever.

Ironically, UC was one of the pioneers of the standardized testing movement. Forced during the 1960s to deal with an unprecedented tidal wave of students, the regents looked for a way to judge candidates against each other in as impartial a manner as feasible. The SAT, previously an Ivy League phenomenon with only mild support elsewhere, quickly filled the void and grew into the mandatory juggernaut it is today.

Just as UC first legitimized the SAT and the use--and now non-use--of race-based affirmative action in admissions, it may again lead the charge to significantly alter the way students are admitted to college. For years, calls for reforming the SAT fell on deaf ears. And now the College Board seems ready to let its biggest client negotiate a new test for everyone. Higher education administrators nationwide should get themselves a seat at that table.