Which Is an Exercise in Futility: the SAT, ‘Survivor’ or All of the Above?

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Context is everything. Cultural references that are familiar to young people today will probably stump the next generation of young people. Similarly, references that are relevant to my way of life might be completely alien to yours.

That’s just one reason why the SAT doesn’t really make any sense any more as a measure of a student’s ability or aptitude.

Here, for example, is an actual SAT question:

“Aware of the baleful weather predicted by forecasters, we decided the ---- would be the best place for our company picnic.


(A) roof

(B) cafeteria

(C) beach

(D) park

(E) lake

Now, if I had grown up on the East Coast, my immediate choice would be “cafeteria,” as my assumption would be that “baleful weather” would indicate rain or maybe even snow. But in fact, I lived for many years on the western side of the Pacific Coast Highway, so “baleful weather” could indicate high waves -- meaning that my company picnic would be best, and more pleasantly, relocated to a lake.

On the other hand, if I had lived in Iowa (and I did for five years), baleful weather might indicate flooding. Obviously my company picnic would be best held on the roof. What to do? What to choose?

Context: the framework within which we make sense of the world.

Another reason the SAT is an inadequate measure of student aptitude is that its questions have little to do with our day-to-day lives or with what we need to know. Here’s a question from the original 1920s version of the SAT -- but it could just as easily be on the test today:

“Pick out the antonyms from among these four words: Obdurate spurious ductile recondite.”

Hurry up and answer! Now even though the question warms the cockles of my English professor heart, I have to admit that during the 12 years I was in college and graduate school, no one ever asked me to pick out any antonyms. Nor have they since.

Arguments about the SAT tend to break down into two major camps: proponents, who believe that the SAT can accurately measure an 18-year-old’s aptitude to succeed in college, and opponents, who say that the SAT blocks access to higher education because it is a flawed instrument that does nothing more than expose racial, gender and socioeconomic inequities.

After considerable discussion and review, last year the liberal arts college of which I am president, Pitzer College, made the SAT optional for all students applying for admission.


In making our decision, Pitzer College has become the West Coast leader of a movement that has been spreading for the last decade among many of the country’s leading liberal arts colleges -- those that can afford to do so and are willing to take a stand -- including Bates, Bowden, Hamilton, Franklin and Marshall, Mt. Holyoke and, most recently, Sarah Lawrence.

We chose to join this movement because we are an institution devoted to the personalized education of young people, and we have a deep commitment to social responsibility. We felt that requiring the SAT -- a test on which white students score 206 points higher on average than nonwhites, according to Psychology Today -- was inconsistent with our values.

Under our new rules, students may choose not to provide us with SAT scores. In that case, they must be in the top 10% of their class or have a GPA of at least 3.50, and if they don’t fall into those categories then there are other criteria from which they must select.

Though it is too early in our admission process to know how many prospective students have elected to not submit SAT scores, we are enjoying a record-breaking year for admissions.

The SAT was born of 1920s intelligence testing. Its creator was Carl Campbell Brigham, a Princeton psychology professor and, according to Nicholas Leman, author of “The Big Test,” an enthusiastic eugenicist.

Looking back on its history, the institutionalization of the SAT strikes me as an utterly American invention, one promising inclusive equality while simultaneously guaranteeing exclusion. We Americans desperately want to be reassured that we are the best when it comes to equalizing opportunity and rewarding merit, and the SAT affords us the chance to indulge our appetite for seemingly objective measurement. But at the underside of our meritocracy is a car-crash culture, filled with such wrecks along the self-esteem highway as television programs like “Survivor,” “The Bachelor,” “American Idol” and “Extreme Makeover.”


And that’s where you’ll find the real message of the SAT: If you are the last one standing, having beaten your competitors by any means necessary, you are the winner. Everyone else is a loser.

What are we measuring as we thank and turn away those who lose out in the college admissions and awards contest and wish them well in a life of alternative pursuits? If it is intelligence and aptitude, then we have selected an odd formula for identifying it.

Young people (and their parents) are being sold a bill of goods that promises them that if they can score a perfect 1,600 on the SAT they will win the college of their choice, win social acceptance and prestige, win a wonderful career, success, money and a fulfilling personal life.

All this from a test in which you can improve your score if you have the money to retake it. A test where scores go up by hundreds of points if you have the money to take a preparation course -- which can cost as much as $900.

The nonprofit Educational Testing Service charges $28.50 to take the SAT, and in 1999 more than 2 million high school students did so. There is so much money at stake that when Richard Atkinson, president of the University of California system, expressed doubts about the SAT, the College Board readily agreed to make changes. The cynic in me suspects that it was more interested in protecting its market share than in creating significant reforms.

Our research has shown that a student’s high-school grade point average -- not his or her SAT scores -- is the greatest predictor of success in college. We want students who are diverse and talented, with interests and achievements in and out of the classroom.


Context: Asked what the acronym “SAT” stands for, most of us would have selected “Scholastic Aptitude Test” as the correct answer. But in fact, “none of the above” is the right answer choice. According to the College Board, which owns and administrates the exam, SAT officially stands for nothing.

Laura Skandera Trombley is president of Pitzer College.