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The Magazine for Leaders in Education: Testing times for the SAT – commentary

Testing times for the SAT – commentary – Brief Article

Christopher R.L. Blake

By all accounts this year has heralded a bright millennial dawn for that great equalizer, educational assessment. Any fears about the readiness of public school graduates for academia would seem to have been quashed.

SAT results from the College Board indicate that record numbers of 1.26 million SAT takers are entering college, scoring a 30-year record of an average 514 in math and a steady, respectable 505 in the verbal score. The rise in the math score is shared across ethnic and gender lines, with the gap between these groups declining each year. Small wonder that the College Board has a goal of doubling Advanced Placement participants to 2.5 million by the end of the decade. And this industrialized production line of assessment has an eager consumer base in the four-year institutes of higher education, more than 80 percent of which will set a high purchase price on SAT data for admissions.

The Assessment Function

Of course selection via assessment is a trickier issue than the neat, clinical data might suggest. Though assessment might be an equalizer that allows us to pass down the same road and through the same gates, beyond those portals the road ahead divides. Here the assessment function of selection sits uncomfortably both with historical goals of meritocracy and current national policy on increased access for life-long learning.

The tension between selection and democratic representation is there and real behind those cheerful scores. Most of our educational tests, including the SAT, are suspect in terms of their bias and predictive value for future learning performance.

The SAT As Snapshot

Applicants to college are not being selected from a level playing field. It may be more accurate to see the SAT as an indicator or snapshot of our current educational inequalities than as an objective yardstick for identifying future academic hotshots beyond the freshman year. As Bob Schaefer of the Cambridge-based “Fair Test” watchdog argues, the SAT is a good measure of cumulative disadvantage and that to define merit and aptitude more meaningfully we need other measures as well.

A greater debate about intelligence and academic aptitude is warranted. As yet that debate has hardly informed our selection procedures for entrance to higher education. But the past decade has seen a wealth of interest in “post-IQ” thinking, especially from the social psychologists. The power of tradition-bound psychometrics is enormous, but a combination of everyday experience and clinical research has laid down the gauntlet in the areas of intelligence and learning, and colleges would do well to consider the significance.

The term “multiple intelligences,” associated with the work of Harvard’s Howard Gardner, is now part of the orthodoxy of curriculum planning in the nation’s public school classrooms. IHEs still tend to value narrow forms of academic intelligence, but if our public schools are spending energy and time in cultivating multiple intelligences, shouldn’t IHEs consider these as determinant criteria for entrance to the academy?

The answer to that may lie in the purpose of learning and the choices that we make–at the college level, and in society generally–about the kinds of knowledge, skills, and dispositions that graduates of the academy should possess. Here the SAT tends toward a narrow view of supposed general-ability traits, which in truth do little to anticipate how a learner might perform.

To date, most discussion of the SAT has centered on its form and content. Perhaps the time is now ripe to consider its purpose within the academy’s goals–assessment as selection requires us to address not only the means but also the ends of educational access.

Christopher R.L. Blake chair of education department and director of teacher education Mount St. Mary’s College, Emmitsburg, Md.

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