At first glance, defenders of the SAT and ACT seem to have a solid case. They say schools vary so widely in their grading that it’s impossible to know with any certainty who will be successful in handling college-level work. That’s why these two measurement icons must not be eliminated (“The War on Admissions Testing,” The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 2).
But that’s not what the best evidence shows. In 1984, Bates College decided to engage in a pioneering experiment. It made the submission of SAT scores optional for admission. In 2004, it announced the results of its 20-year study. It found virtually no differences in the four-year academic performance and on-time graduation rates of 7,000 submitters and nonsubmitters. Since then, hundreds of other colleges and universities have followed suit, with similar results.
The roots of the controversy go back to the start of World War I when the country was faced with the urgent need to quickly identify officer candidates. Finding itself ill equipped for the task at hand, the military turned to the American Psychological Association for help. Working out of the Vineland Training School in New Jersey, a special committee came up with the Army Alpha, which allowed recruits to be ranked according to their intellectual abilities.
In all, some 1,750,000 men the Army Alpha. It proved so successful that its designers decided to apply the same approach to whatever subject content was being measured. This eventually led to the design of the Scholastic Aptitude Test in 1926 by psychologist Carl Brigham, who believed that it assessed innate ability. But there is a distinct difference between an aptitude test and an achievement test. Although they may be related, they do not necessarily correlate.
Unfortunately, this distinction is completely lost in the continuing controversy over the use of both the SAT and ACT. To most people, a test is a test. That’s a misleading conclusion, as the experience of so many colleges and universities today shows.
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