Sunday, March 06, 2005

SAT's relevance increasingly questioned

Recently, Bill Gates questioned the make-up of the American primary and secondary education system. Increasingly, another mainstay of college-bound students is being questioned - the SAT. A new SAT launches next Saturday and an estimated 300,000 high school students will take the test for the first time.

The changes to the SAT are an effort to persuade the admissions departments in colleges that the tests remain useful and fair. Some colleges, including Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, are making SAT testing voluntary. Bates says that the SAT scores do little to identify who will succeed in school. Recently, Lawrence University in Wisconsin and St. Lawrence University in New York dropped their testing requirements.

The University of California system threatened to drop the SAT in 2001. It will study the new test for three years and then decide if it is an improvement or not. Increasingly, colleges are deciding that the SAT is not worth the cost (in money and stress) to them or their students.

Ironically, the original mission of the SAT was to level the boarding-school playing field. Now sometimes criticized as a barrier for poor and minority students, it was originally created in the 1940s to increase access to colleges from public schools.

SAT advocates argue that because of grade inflation and a wide variety in the quality of schools, it's hard to judge a student's readiness for college from high school grades alone. The increasing home school movement has also made it harder for colleges to rely on grades alone.

The SAT (and the alternate ACT) are still mainstays of college entrance. But as more schools continue to question its relevance, it will most likely change or die. Some recent challengers include Dr. Robert Sternberg's Rainbow Project.

The test evaluates creativity and problem-solving rather than analytical skills. Instead of multiple choice questions, it asks students to write captions for cartoons, outline how they would solve a problem or write stories from unusual titles. The tests appear to predict students' freshman GPA in college more accurately than the SAT scores and have a narrower gap between ethnic and socio-economic groups, in early experiments.

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