An inside look at the SAT

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).

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)





2 Replies to “An inside look at the SAT”

  1. Seems reasonable for colleges to consider what a student brings to the classroom as well as what the student learns in the classroom. Presumably, students who bring more to the classroom (due to higher family SES or other causes) will — on average — do better in college than students who bring less to the classroom.


  2. Labor Lawyer: The changes in the name of the SAT over the decades reveal that it largely remains an IQ test rather than a test of what is learned in school. That would be OK if the College Board was more truthful in what it purports to measure. It certainly takes a certain IQ to handle college-level work, but IQ alone is no assurance of success. What students learn in class should be the No. 1 consideration.


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