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Volume 13, Issue 8.   May 6, 2002.

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War on the SAT
With affirmative action rolled back, University of California President Richard Atkinson wants to ditch the controversial standardized test as the be-all, end-all of college admissions.

Wherever he went in the past year, University of California President Richard Atkinson was handing out verbal analogies questions: DRAPERY is to FABRIC as (pick one) fireplace is to wood; curtain to stage; shutter to light; sieve to liquid; window to glass.

The questions come from the SAT I exam that 1.3 million college applicants take every year. The questions aren't all that tough, but Atkinson believes they show that the test is a capricious exercise that adds little information to what other tests and grades show about a student's academic capabilities. At the same time, it discriminates against poor and minority students, and distracts attention from the core academic subjects that high-school students should focus on. "If you know the definition of those words," he said, "the reasoning is trivial." So he's been working hard to change UC admissions policies to rely on a new, still-to-be-designed test instead of the SAT I -- and to persuade other universities to do the same. "If we do it," he said, "other institutions will come along."

Atkinson's message is being heard. In March, a little more than a year after he publicly announced his intentions, the College Board, which designs and manages the SAT tests, announced plans to revise the SAT I. Among the contemplated changes: adding a writing section, switching to math problems based less on aptitude and more on specific skills learned in advanced high-school math courses, and de-emphasizing or perhaps eliminating the analogies. Board President Gaston Caperton acknowledged that the revisions are being prompted by Atkinson's challenge.

But beyond the matter of the SAT, Atkinson has been struggling with a larger and more vexing issue in American higher education: how to square the demanding academic standards of a selective public university with its democratic mission to serve all citizens -- "to honor both the ideal of merit," he said, "and the ideal of broad educational opportunity." Particularly in a state like California, where whites are now just another minority and where, in another generation, Hispanics will become an absolute majority, the answers will play a crucial role in determining just what kind of society is to emerge.

Atkinson, cognitive psychologist, former director of the National Science Foundation, and former chancellor at UC's San Diego campus, is well aware of the obstacles to fundamental reform.

"He's been stewing about the SAT for years," one of his senior aides said. "He started reading the test questions and saying, 'Hey, this is a lousy test.' And he's probably the only guy who could have taken this on. He has the stature, the professional background, and [at the age of 73], he's getting ready to retire."

He's also possessed of a quiet passion that's easy to miss. In an era when university presidents spend much of their time raising money, and are heard less and less on major policy issues, Atkinson's push to end the use of the SAT I, to broaden the pool of university applicants, and to "move away from admission processes that use narrowly defined quantitative formulas [mostly grades and test scores] and instead adopt procedures that look at applicants in a comprehensive, holistic way," has put him as close as anyone in this era to the ranks of educational statesmen.

By now people in the field understand the close connection between affirmative action and the grades-plus-test-score formulas that most selective universities rely on in admissions, even when it's denied. Race-based affirmative action, often by means of an equally inflexible formula, is designed to offset the effects of test scores on black and Latino applicants who, on average, test lower than whites and Asians. (For two decades or more, until well into the 1990s, places like UC Berkeley, the University of Texas, and the University of Michigan added extra points to the scores of black and Latino applicants.) So as federal courts -- in Texas, Michigan, and Georgia -- join voters in California and Washington in ending the use of race-based criteria in university admissions (and in employment and contracting), the old grades-plus-test-score formulas come under increasing scrutiny as well.

One of those courts (in the Texas case) went so far as to effectively overturn the U.S. Supreme Court's 1978 decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, a decision that prohibited quotas but permitted university admissions officers to find other ways to make race a "plus" factor in evaluating candidates. Sooner or later the Supreme Court will have to take up the question again. And when it does, it's quite likely to narrow Bakke to prohibit race-based formulas. Thus, the issues Atkinson has raised will become increasingly pertinent even in private institutions. The fact that Bakke was a California case -- that it was the UC precedent that won all universities the right to consider race -- makes the story even more telling.

Atkinson, who was appointed president in August 1995, almost didn't survive the first three months of his tenure. Just a month before his appointment, then-Governor Pete Wilson, looking for a wedge issue to breathe life into his faltering presidential campaign, had successfully pressured the UC board of regents to end race preferences in university admissions, hiring, and promotion. At a meeting packed with shouting protestors in San Francisco, the board, ignoring the faculty governance processes that such decisions normally require, voted 14 to 10 to abandon affirmative action and to base between 50 percent and 75 percent of all campus admissions decisions on high-school grades and test scores alone. That made UC the first major institution in the nation that could not consider race in its admissions and hiring. But a few months later, Atkinson, who, along with the university's other chancellors, had strongly opposed the regents' decision, announced that he was postponing its implementation by a year -- from fall 1997 to fall 1998. The university, he said, didn't have time to act sooner.

That brought an angry reaction, particularly from Wilson and Ward Connerly, a black Sacramento businessman and UC regent who, to this day, is a national leader in the campaign to end affirmative action and who, along with Wilson, spearheaded the UC ban. Atkinson says he discussed the postponement with two or three key board members, but Connerly thought the regents had been blindsided. Atkinson was called to the governor's office, where Wilson pounded the table, threatened to get him fired, and ultimately forced him to write a letter acknowledging that he had "erred." "There is no question in my mind," Atkinson's letter said, "that it is the constitutional duty of the Board to set policy for the University, and the role of the President is to implement that policy." Wilson, Atkinson said, wrote much of the language himself. At the same time, it was also clear that if Atkinson had been fired, the resulting uproar -- among faculty and among the UC chancellors -- could have made the bitter fight over the ban itself look like a picnic.

Atkinson vehemently denies that the ending of affirmative action spurred his search for new admissions criteria. But it certainly increased the demographic and political pressure. Although the university has been proclaiming that its recent outreach efforts have succeeded in drawing as many black and Latino applicants -- and in enrolling as many minority freshmen -- as UC's nine campuses had drawn before the regents' ban went into effect, that was emphatically not the case at Berkeley and UCLA, the system's flagship institutions. It really wasn't even true in the system as a whole, if one used 1995, the year of the regents' vote, as a baseline, rather than 1997, the last year before implementation, when many qualified blacks and Hispanics were already saying they wouldn't have felt welcome at UC and thus never applied.

As a result, demands grew urgent -- both from dissenting regents like Bill Bagley, a lawyer and former Republican state legislator, and from the legislature's increasingly powerful Latino caucus -- to rescind the 1995 ban and to take other measures to broaden black and Hispanic enrollment. But it was Atkinson, who had always disliked the SAT, who was the driving force.

Atkinson contends that unlike the SAT IIs (once called achievement tests, which are exams in the major subjects that students take in high school -- math, history, composition, the sciences, foreign languages), the SAT I, originally called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, retains the genetic code of its discredited predecessors in intelligence testing. It is not directly related to any subject students are taught in high school; worse, it drives affluent students, some as young as 12, into $600 cram courses that teach little except the tricks of taking the test. UC's data also show that the disparity in scores between underrepresented minority applicants and whites and Asians is significantly greater on the SAT I than on the SAT IIs.

In any case, Atkinson said, "it seems only right that students should be judged on what they've accomplished in four years of high school, not on how they rate on an ill-defined measure of aptitude or intelligence ... . Anyone involved in education should be concerned about how overemphasis on the SAT is distorting educational priorities ... how the test is perceived by many as unfair, and how it can have a devastating impact on the self-esteem and aspirations of young students." It's not a new argument, but never has it come from a more powerful and credible source.

By law, UC is mandated to take the top 12.5 percent of each year's California graduates. To pick them, it currently requires undergraduate applicants to do well on a list of prescribed high-school courses and to take the SAT I. They also have to take three SAT IIs, one in composition, one in math, and one in any other field the applicant chooses. But the university's data demonstrate that the combination of grades, the SAT II scores, and the SAT I scores provides virtually no more information on how an applicant will do academically as opposed to the combination of grades and the SAT IIs by themselves. "The SAT," Atkinson said, "adds nothing to our ability to predict" college performance.

Atkinson is no testing Luddite. He would retain the SAT IIs, and he has UC working with the nation's two major admissions testing organizations to produce a whole new exam, based in large part on what students are supposed to learn in high school. The plan is to also develop a "concordance table" so that scores on the new exam could be used instead of the SAT I -- thus, Atkinson hopes, sparing students applying to other institutions from taking two sets of tests.

The College Board doesn't deny UC's data, although Wayne Camara, the board's vice president for research and development, offers numbers from a group of 23 self-selected universities showing that the SAT I does add some marginal information for certain ethnic groups. Nonetheless, if UC were to abandon the SAT I, it would be a major blow for the test and the board, as UC is the board's biggest customer. (The applicants, of course, pay for the test.) It was only when UC began to require it for all applicants in 1968-1969 that the SAT became a truly national exam. There is thus ample reason for the board to talk about revisions to accommodate Atkinson's complaints.

The outcome of the UC battle over admissions tests is far from a sure thing. It's been pointed out, for example, that the SAT II foreign language test gives certain students -- first-generation Latinos for example -- a large advantage over African Americans. More important, as Bob Laird, Berkeley's former undergraduate admissions director said, one of the main reasons many blacks and Latinos are ineligible for UC is not "because their grades weren't good enough or because they didn't have the required college prep courses, but because they didn't complete the SAT IIs." Continuing to rely on these exams, and adding another costly test as well, would hardly improve that situation.

In addition there's the status problem. Institutions not too sure of their academic prestige may want those SAT I numbers to reinforce their ratings (say in U.S. News and World Report) and their academic pretensions. Berkeley, UCLA, and UC-San Diego may be secure enough that SAT scores no longer mean as much. But weaker UC campuses like Riverside may feel they need them. The issue is to go to the regents this summer, and it may well be that the College Board's plans to revise its test are, in part, an effort to play regental politics by strengthening the hand of those who have doubts about Atkinson's proposal.

Yet however the SAT question is decided, Atkinson has already moved his institution a long way from where it was in 1995. Three years ago, following the Texas model, UC began to accept every student in the top 4 percent of his or her high-school graduating class, regardless of the quality of the school or the student's test scores. (For those below the top 4 percent, admission is based on a combination of grades and test scores.) Then came a great gush of reforms: In May 2001, less than six years after they approved it, the regents (with the support of Connerly) unanimously rescinded their ban on race preferences. Because a similar ban had been written into the state constitution with the passage of Proposition 209, the regents' act was largely symbolic. But in removing the UC "unwelcome mat," it was significant nonetheless. In July the board approved a "dual admissions" plan under which all California high school students who are between the top 4 percent to 12.5 percent of their respective high-school classes will be guaranteed UC admission as juniors, provided they successfully complete their first two years at a community college. The university, citing a lack of funds (and probably hoping to extract them from the legislature), has deferred implementation of dual admissions but has promised to launch it in the coming years.

And then in November, the biggest reform was instituted: board approval of "comprehensive review," Atkinson's holistic admissions process, on an Ivy League model, under which the total record of every applicant -- grades, tests, handicaps overcome, special skills, diversity of background, talents, and achievements -- is considered. What UC calls eligibility, meaning a guarantee of admission to some UC campuses, will still be based on class rank or on grades in mandated subjects and test scores, but admission to any particular campus, including Berkeley and UCLA, will be determined by "comprehensive review."

For a public university, that's a major departure. It's also risky. When the regents debated the issue last fall, Berkeley political science professor Jack Citrin charged that "these flabby, vague guidelines" are "an invitation to introduce a new set of group preferences" and "open up a Pandora's box of problems," that will undermine academic standards and expose the university to legal challenges. What's certain is that the "whole man" admissions criteria of the Ivy League and other private East Coast colleges for a long time meant that only WASP gentlemen from the right families and the right schools got in. The SAT was an antidote, and if students and their legislators don't trust the people making Atkinson's holistic decisions, they may want to see more such objective numbers.

Ever since the supreme Court's 5-to-4 Bakke ruling -- which was really a 4-to-4-to-1 decision and deeply confusing -- the courts have been ambivalent about the use of race-based affirmative action to enhance diversity on university campuses. What's constitutional in most of the country is now unconstitutional in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, the states covered by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' 1996 decision in Hopwood v. Texas. And it's uncertain in southeastern states covered by last year's 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the University of Georgia's admissions policy "that mechanically awards an arbitrary 'diversity' bonus to each and every nonwhite applicant ... fails strict scrutiny." Meanwhile an appellate ruling is pending in two conflicting Michigan decisions, one striking down race preferences in law school admissions, the other upholding them in undergraduate admissions.

Although the Supreme Court has so far ducked the issue, it will not be able to do so much longer. And any decision that removes the possibility of adjusting the test scores of minority applicants will bring widespread pressure to de-emphasize, if not wholly eliminate, tests like the SAT. That's been the clear trend where -- as in Texas, California, and Florida -- the courts or the voters have already acted or appeared on the verge of acting.

So far, the results of alternative approaches have been mixed. Atkinson says that UC's policy of admitting the top 4 percent of the seniors from each high school, the first of his admissions reforms to go into effect, has been a resounding success. Last year it prompted an 8 percent jump in the applicant pool, of which a significant percentage are black or Hispanic, many from high schools that had rarely sent students to UC before. In its first year, roughly 80 percent of the graduates in the top 4 percent of their high schools applied.

Something similar happened in Texas. But in its brief seeking review of Hopwood last year -- an appeal that the Supreme Court ultimately refused to hear -- the University of Texas argued that such approaches "unavoidably [have] the effect of lowering undergraduate admission standards."

For people like Harvard law professor Lani Guinier, once Bill Clinton's nominee to head the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, "merit in a public institution of higher education cannot exist independent of ... diversity." She wants to vastly enlarge diversity considerations in the admission of all students, regardless of race or gender. She also seems to favor lotteries to choose from the pool of qualified applicants, using tests only to establish the floor.

The chances that any major university would adopt such criteria are slim. The closest any came was the City University of New York, with its disastrous open-admissions plan. That is not what Atkinson is looking for. UC will open more routes for students hoping to get in, and it will consider more admissions criteria, which of course will allow for subtle race preferences -- how can you look at community service or handicaps overcome without reference to race? But Atkinson does not intend to abandon tests as a major factor in admissions decisions. The tension between "the ideal of merit and the ideal of broad opportunity" will not be resolved by his reforms so much as exposed to the light. Still, if the Supreme Court ever overturns Bakke, the rest of academia may have to learn some lessons from UC.

It's been just 25 years since the California Supreme Court, in a 6-1 decision, first ruled that the university could not consider race in making admissions decisions. "The principle that the Constitution sanctions racial discrimination against a race -- any race," wrote the liberal Justice Stanley Mosk, "is a dangerous concept fraught with potential for misuse in situations which involve far less laudable objectives than are manifest in the present case." It was California's appeal of that ruling that led to the U.S. Supreme Court's Bakke decision, on which all of this country's admissions office affirmative action rests. Five years ago, the state's voters, through Proposition 209, trumped Bakke and, in effect, restored the Mosk decision. Now, as the number of young American blacks and Latinos continues to grow, Atkinson and UC are trying to take higher education into what begins to look ever more like the post-Bakke era. For Atkinson, who hopes to step down next year, it could be an imposing legacy.

Peter Schrag

Copyright 2002 by The American Prospect, Inc. Preferred Citation: Peter Schrag, "War on the SAT," The American Prospect vol. 13 no. 8, May 6, 2002. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to [email protected].

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