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SAT Debate

Spencer Michels examines the debate over scholastic aptitude tests--better known as the SATs.

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  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    The world of testing college applicants was rocked in February by an announcement from the president of the University of California. Richard Atkinson said he wants his university to drop use of the basic SAT test– a test used by nearly 3,000 schools.

  • RICHARD ATKINSON:

    The motivation is to have an admissions process that's perceived as being fair — one that really focuses on testing students on what they've studied in high school, and where the student and their parents really understand the relationship between that test and the events in high school.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Atkinson said the SAT overemphasizes test- taking skills at the expense of subject matter, and doesn't relate enough to high school classes. He said it is unclear what the test actually measures. A few other colleges have already dropped the SAT requirement. Bowdoin College, in Maine, was the first school to make it optional, 30 years ago. But most schools still rely on the test.

  • PERSON ADMINISTERING TEST:

    Good morning and welcome. The SAT-1 reasoning test will be given here this morning.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    The SAT used to be called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, but no longer; it's simply the SAT. And this year nearly two million high school students will pay $23 to take this standardized exam. The verbal and math questions on the SAT-1 and specific subject matter like science and foreign language on SAT-2 are designed to let college admissions officers evaluate applicants, despite their different high school experiences. The test was designed in 1926 to get rid of a national elite, who were being admitted to top colleges; and instead create a kind of meritocracy, where admission to college would be based on aptitude and achievement.

  • TEACHER:

    You will have two 30-minute sections and a 15-minute section.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Today, SAT's have become so important, that even the university of California sponsors test preparation classes for educationally disadvantaged high school students.

  • TEACHER:

    First you guys know you are going to be receiving one point for each correct answer that you guys. Don't be afraid of skipping questions. That's not bad. You won't be penalized for skipping anything on the test. So don't worry about that.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    These classes are taught under contract by tutors from Ivy West Educational Services, one of several companies– including Kaplan and the Princeton Review– that have based their existence on preparing students for the SAT.

  • TUTOR:

    Miser and stingy.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    The test prep firms and private tutors, like this one, also offer one on one tutoring. The companies usually charge about a $1,000 for 15 hours of instruction, which has led to charges of unfairness. One test section deals with analogies.

  • STUDENT:

    He's cheap, but…

  • TUTOR:

    Yes, he never spends money. The miser never spends money.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    To predict success in college, the Educational Testing Service, which writes the tests for the college board, says the SAT must be used in connection with high school grades. At Berkeley, and at many colleges, the admissions office already evaluates applicants on a variety of criteria– including grades, essays, test scores on both SAT I and II, plus a student's special accomplishments. But it's the SAT's that have become the most controversial among administrators and among students.

  • STUDENT:

    Certain people have access to take these little crazy courses where you can do… improve your score. Therefore it can't possibly be fair.

  • STUDENT:

    I think that people who do well on those tests don't necessarily perform best when they come here, and that there's a lot of things that make a good student, not just filling in blanks on a test.

  • STUDENT:

    I believe it's fair. I don't believe it's biased in any way and, I don't know, I believe the system should keep using it.

  • STUDENT:

    I don't think it was a test that tested me on how smart I was or how well I would do at Cal, or how well I would do at any college. I think it just tested me on how well my parents taught me. And not everybody has a good parent… parental upbringing.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    The University of California faculty will take up President Atkinson's proposal, and eventually the university's board of regents will decide whether and how to replace the SAT I.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Ray Suarez takes it from there.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    For more on the SAT tests, we're joined by four experts the education field. Richard Atkinson, the president of the University of California. Gaston Caperton, the president of the College Board, the company that owns the SAT tests. William Hiss, the vice president for external affairs and alumni affairs and former dean of admissions of Bates College. Bates no longer requires SAT Tests for admission– and John Blackburn, the dean of admissions at the University of Virginia. They do require SATS for admission. Gaston Caperton, let's start with you. Ideally, what is the SAT designed to tell a college about an applicant?

  • GASTON CAPTERON, College Board:

    Well, I think in the comprehensive, or holistic approach, to the application process to a college, admissions officers want to know as much as they can about the student and their talents. And the SAT I is a wonderful way for a student to display their talents. Dr. Atkinson says it doesn't test anything. That's just not true. It's a test that tests your ability to read and to answer questions and to think. It's a test on the mathematics that takes into consideration your understanding of fractions, of Algebra, Geometry– very basic mathematical skills– and your ability to solve problems. That is an important kind of knowledge to have when you go to college, and the test shows that those students who do well on this test, it gives a good example of how well they're going to do when they go to college. It's a very important tool to an admissions officer to have this kind of information as he looks at a comprehensive overview of a student.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Richard Atkinson, given what Mr. Caperton says is the design and the purpose of the test, why did you begin to remove it from the UC system and the UC assessment?

    RICHARD ATKINSON, University of California: Well, let me begin by saying I think you need standardized tests. I mean, there are great variations from one high school and the other and the like, and we need a standardized test. But what I'm asking for is a standardized test that's closely linked, that's coordinated with the program of study that the student is involved in. And we have given the SAT I and the SAT II for quite a number of years. And simply put, the SAT II– which is not ideal for my view, but a lot closer to my view– coordinates more closely with the studies of the students in high school. And we find that the University of California, it's a far better predictor of the performance of students than the SAT I.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    And the SAT II is what we used to call achievement tests?

  • RICHARD ATKINSON:

    Well, you can call it whatever you want. I'd call it an achievement test. It's more closely linked to the kinds of materials that the student studies, rather than the vagaries of, you know, verbal reasoning or whatever people seem to think the SAT I measures.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    William Hiss, why did you move Bates College to an optional use of the SAT test?

  • WILLIAM HISS, Bates College:

    We found that it was unevenly predicted. It predicted modestly for some students, but we've had optional testing for 16 years now, and in each class that comes to bates, about a quarter to a third come with no testing. We find that those students, when they say to us as they have now for years, "I'm simply a better student than these tests would suggest," they're correct. Those students are earning exactly the same GPA's and graduated at exactly the same rates as do the students who came with testing. So we found that there are simply pools of students, quite substantial, who are being under measured by the tests. And they fall into all the subgroups that folk wisdom would tell you, are not helped very much by standardized testing.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    I'm surprised that once you went to optional, anybody continued to submit it. Do only people who think it will help them out, maybe buttress a weak transcript or show some other strengths, actually submit an SAT score to you?

  • WILLIAM HISS:

    We have about 70% of each class voluntarily submitting tests. The other 30% are students who, if you read their applications, you probably would say yes, we understand why they're not submitting. They are heavy overrepresentations of rural students, blue-collar students, immigrants, second language, students of color, kids with spiked talents. They're fabulous set designers, musicians, debaters, chemists. But they may not have very, very good test-taking skills.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    John Blackburn, it's not optional to get into the University of Virginia. Why you are sticking with the SAT?

    JOHN BLACKBURN, University of Virginia: We require the SAT I and the SAT II. And I would say to Mr. Atkinson that the SAT II, being pretty much an achievement test, does give us a sense of the background that a student brings and various disciplines from the subject tests. The SAT I is helpful for us in giving some sense of the student's ability in solving problems, using the language and in mathematics. The combination for us is very helpful, but yet it's not as if it's the only factor we use. It's… we consider a great variety of factors. We don't have formulas here. We look at things from essay writing to recommendations, what the student has done in school. So it… we continue to think that it is a helpful factor, certainly not the most important in trying to judge which students should have a seat here.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Well, let's go back to you, Mr. Atkinson. It's been suggested that inside a state, and certainly one as big and diverse as California is, the grades that come out of third-year English, junior English, might tell you different things. Reading up in the North, Chula Vista down in the South, you're assessing grades from all over California. Wouldn't the SAT give you a baseline, a sort of common floor for all students to stand on?

  • RICHARD ATKINSON:

    Well, that's why I began by saying that I'm not opposed to standardized testing. I think we need some standardized tests, and in California we're developing a whole set of tests that run from grades "k" through high school. But what I'm opposed to are tests that are not clearly linked to the curriculum that the student studies. I mean, this goes back to the old IQ debate of the 1920s and the 1930s that people thought in those days they were measuring something fundamental, basic IQ. And the notion that the SAT I measures reasoning ability, I would say that's an issue not many serious people would argue is the case. My mechanic would do incredibly poorly on the SAT I verbal, but he's a spectacular guy in terms of being able to reason through and solve problems. I mean, these are complicated issues — and to think that some two-hour, three-hour test measures notions of reasoning ability and the like, and problem solving, I find a little hard to accept.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Well, Gaston Caperton, let me get you to answer that critique.

  • GASTON CAPTERON:

    Well, I think he's absolutely wrong. To know how to think, and to know how to read and answer questions, to know basic mathematics, and to be able to solve math problems is a very critical part of learning, and an important part of doing well in college. And that's what this test is designed to do. So I think he's absolutely wrong. I'm not… in my own personal situation, I happen to be dyslexic. I don't do well on the English test, but I did very well on the math test. And also, I did a lot of other things. So I was able, with a low score in one subject, to get into a good university and to do fine. And so do other students. If you were just using the SAT I as the only sole criteria, that's not the way to do it. It's just what Mr. Blackburn said, you've got to use a group of tests. I don't understand what Mr. Atkinson is afraid he's going to find out about a student because he's taken the SAT I.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    William Hiss, are we watching the beginning of a moving away from this test?

  • WILLIAM HISS:

    I think many schools have not moved away from it at all; others have moved away from it a bit. Some, like Bates, have made it completely optional. I would question the assumption that the SAT, or any standardized test, provides a uniformly reliable common yardstick. That's precisely the fundamental premise that we would question and say, perhaps, we need a wider variety of instruments that students can choose from. I think President Atkinson is asking exactly the right question. How does he trade off whatever predictive value the test has– and it clearly has some for some students– against other groups of students for whom it may be what a statistician would call a false negative. It suggests they can't do the work when, in fact, they can. And then, the third issue, which I think is critical, it's a social policy, public policy issue is, how much predictive value do you get from the testing versus how much do you scare off potentially successful students? We found that we were artificially truncating our applicant pool by requiring the testing. Our applications have doubled since we made testing optional and the students have succeeded.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Let me try just a little experiment. I'm going to pick an application out of your basket up in Lewiston, Maine, and put it in John Blackburn's in box. Strong selection of courses, the student didn't just take gut courses in junior and senior year to beef up the GPA, so maybe he got some Bs and some things where they could have opted for an easy A. But the SAT isn't that strong. Am I going to find a place at Charlottesville?

  • JOHN BLACKBURN:

    Well, I think that's a common situation that we see with applications. That is, students sometimes will have powerful academic records in high school and, in those cases, they usually will have high SAT II subject tests. If they're not terribly good at test taking, maybe the SAT I isn't so high, we'd want to look, then, closely at the essays to see how the student can use the language and maybe what the teachers have to say about that person. I would probably, in state, it's likely that person would be admitted. Out of state, we'd probably spend a lot of time discussing it in committee.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Does the volume of applications play any role in the continued use of the SAT? You've got a lot more applications to look at than Mr. Hiss does.

  • JOHN BLACKBURN:

    Yeah. One of the things that it does is that it gives us a national standard of sorts. Now, again, it's only one factor of many. There's so many different schools in this country and so many different kinds of academic programs. We don't have a national curriculum, for example, as you'll find in most other countries — so that we don't have that sort of measurement of achievement that is consistent across the country — so that the SAT Serve in a small way as that standard. Now, we use it different ways depending on the individual student, just as Bill Hiss is suggesting.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Richard Atkinson, could this be a decision that ends up being revisited by the UC system? For instance, you've called for another test, you supported standardized tests. If nobody comes up with the ideal test that you're looking for, might you go back to the SAT?

  • RICHARD ATKINSON:

    In California, we have what we call the "A-F" requirement for high school students, a set of courses that they have to take. And I want an examination that informs the students that if they've mastered this material, they will do well on that examination, they will get feedback as to the areas where they're weak; and I also want feedback to the schools that tell the schools that the student has not been doing well in this area or that area. And frankly, the whole point of my remark is that these tests should be coordinated with the learning experiences that the student has been exposed to. And I just do not like this history of the SAT that goes back to this outmoded notion that there's some core intelligence that they're measuring. So don't misunderstand me. I mean, I like the math section of the SAT I, the quantitative section. I think it's pretty good. I would rather see it tied directly to the courses that the students have studied, but there's certain aspects of the verbal part. The verbal analogies, for example, just blow my mind. You know, what really ticked me off on all of this is seeing some young children at age 12 in a very elite, private school starting to study verbal analogies, all in anticipation of taking the SAT I. And that's the sort of thing that really does worry me for the long term.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Gaston Caperton, can I guess that this isn't the first time you've heard that critique?

  • GASTON CAPERTON:

    This is not about the unfairness of the test. It's not about kids' ability to learn. This is about an unfair and equal education system that shows this diversity between groups of students. And I think that's the important point and the main point that I'd like to get across, is that we have to in America make this school system fair to everybody so that all children get a chance to maximize their potential, get the chance to get the kind of education they need in order to get into college and to have that opportunity in life.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Misters Caperton, Atkinson, Hiss and Blackburn, gentlemen, thank you all.

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