When the University of California announced that it will no longer require the SAT for admission, the news triggered the usual cries of elation or denunciation (“The University of California Will Stop Using SAT, ACT,” The Wall Street Journal, May 25). Anyone who follows issues in education I’m certain is quite familiar with both sides. What I intend to do in today’s column, therefore, is to explain a side of the controversy that is poorly understood.
I’m talking strictly now about how the SAT is designed. If the test were loaded up with items that measured only the most important content effectively taught by teachers – which I maintain should be the sole reason for its existence – scores would likely be bunched together. That would make it nearly impossible to rank students. In fact, items that are answered correctly by too many students are almost always deleted from subsequent editions. That doesn’t mean the items are easy. On the contrary, they are difficult, which is why students who get the items right will almost always perform well in college.
So what we have is an educational Catch 22: the more successful that teachers are in teaching the most important material, the more the SAT devalues that. It must engineer score spread or else it cannot deliver on its promise to admission officers. Designers have found over the years that the items best suited for that purpose are those measuring socioeconomic factors. Therefore, what the SAT really does is to measure what students bring to the classroom, rather than what they learn in the classroom. (Notice the prepositions in italics).
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