Wednesday, May 11, 2005 | Last March, the College Board unveiled the newly revised SAT, which now features an essay and other additions suggested by Richard Atkinson, former president of the University of California, who played an integral role in the reshaping of the national standardized test.

This is part two in a four-part series. Read part one.

I became seriously involved with the SAT during the early 1990s when I served as chair of BOTA, the Board on Testing and Assessment. BOTA is a board of the National Research Council charged with advising the federal government on issues of testing and assessment. BOTA has done a tremendous service integrating and interpreting research findings in order to advise the government on a wide range of testing and assessment problems for virtually every federal agency.

Serving on BOTA focused my attention on college admissions tests and their effects on a student’s high school education and subsequent career. However, the defining moment for me occurred at a meeting of BOTA in Washington, D.C., where representatives of the College Board and the Educational Testing Service presented their views on college admissions tests. I left that meeting less than satisfied. The College Board and ETS have a superb record both on the technical aspects of test development and on administering tests and ensuring their security. But at that meeting, the notion that the SAT I was a “true measure of intelligence” dominated their perspective. Further, they seemed oblivious to several studies suggesting that achievement tests were a better predictor of college success than aptitude tests.

On my way home, I stopped in Florida to visit my grandchildren. I found my granddaughter, then in sixth grade, already diligently preparing for the SAT by testing herself on long lists of verbal analogies. She had a corpus of quite obscure words to memorize, and then she proceeded to construct analogies using the words. I was amazed at the amount of time and effort involved, all in anticipation of the SAT. Was this how I wanted my granddaughter to spend her study time?

On the plane trip back to California I drafted an op-ed piece about college admissions tests. It was not focused on the University of California, but on college admissions in general. It made a series of points. One was that admissions tests should not try to measure “innate intelligence” (whatever that is), but should focus on achievement – what the student actually learned during the high school years. In addition, such tests should have an essay component requiring the student to produce an actual writing sample. And the tests should cover more mathematics than simply an eighth grade introduction to algebra.

And, finally, I said that an important aspect of admissions tests was to convey to students, as well as their teachers and parents, the importance of learning to write and the necessity of mastering at least eighth through 10th grade mathematics.

The draft op-ed piece was handwritten. I shared it with a few close friends, decided that the time was not right to raise the issue, and placed it in my desk drawer. But later, when the SAT controversy erupted, a reporter learned of the draft and requested it under the Freedom of Information Act. To my chagrin, the UC General Counsel declared that it was a university document and had to be turned over to the reporter.

When I was asked to give the keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Council of Education in February 2001, a colleague of mine at the Office of the President, Pat Hayashi, suggested that we use the op-ed draft as the basis for the speech. Pat had been the admissions officer at UC Berkeley for a number of years, and at the time was serving on the Board of Trustees of the College Board. He has been an important influence on my thinking about admissions issues, in general, and the SAT, in particular.

Although as UC president I already had plenty of controversies to contend with, I liked Pat’s suggestion and we proceeded to redo the op-ed piece, but this time focused on the University of California (the speech can be found at the UC Office of the President Web site). I won’t go into the details of the A.C.E. speech. In a nutshell, I said that I intended to recommend to the faculty that the university cease using the SAT I and rely on SAT IIs until an appropriate achievement-oriented test could be developed to replace the SAT I. The text of that speech was a closely held secret; I shared it with only a few trusted colleagues.

I flew to Washington, D.C., on a Friday, with the speech scheduled for Sunday afternoon. I checked into my hotel Friday evening. The next morning I woke up, planning to spend an enjoyable Saturday visiting the Hirshhorn Gallery. When I opened my hotel door, there in the hallway was the Washington Post. The front page story – top of the fold -read: “Key SAT Test Under Fire in Calif.; University President Proposes New Admissions Criteria.” I rushed out to retrieve copies of the L.A. Times and the Chicago Tribune and found the same thing: front page stories. The New York Times had a long story, also starting on the front page, with a headline that read: “Head of U. of California Seeks To End SAT Use in Admissions.” The story was particularly interesting because they had reproduced word for word almost half of the speech.

I will take a moment to explain how this happened. A young man in the UC press office was about to take another job, and he had friends at the Associated Press. The computer system in my office was not as secure as we had assumed, and he was able to obtain the next-to-last draft of the speech. I know this because at the last moment Pat Hayashi convinced me to add a paragraph on “comprehensive review”; namely, that the University of California should stress the importance of multiple factors in the admissions process and not rely too heavily on test scores. So I said, “OK, draft a paragraph and put it in.” And he did. When I saw the paragraph, I was satisfied except that he used the term “holistic review.” I dislike the word “holistic” with its various connotations and quickly changed it to “comprehensive review.” But The New York Times carried the term “holistic” because they had the penultimate draft of the speech. That term continues to plague me even to this day. Apparently, some people still refer to the original New York Times account.

I never made it to the Hirshhorn on Saturday. Most of the day was spent trying to dodge reporters and frantic calls from UC officials. When I arrived at the A.C.E. meetings on Sunday afternoon, the auditorium was packed as were the overflow rooms. The place was alive with reporters. There were TV cameras and satellite feeds everywhere; it was truly a chaotic scene. Stan Ikenberry, the president of A.C.E., was absolutely delighted. This was the biggest crowd and the most media coverage A.C.E. had ever had. No one seemed disturbed that the speech had been leaked to the press the day before.

The audience’s response was wonderful. I had expected to attract some attention in the higher education community, but I was unprepared for the general public’s response. Clearly the topic hit a deep chord in the American psyche.

Read part three.

Richard Atkinson is president emeritus of the University of California. He served as president of the UC system from 1995-2003. Prior to that, Atkinson served as chancellor of University of California, San Diego, was director of the National Science Foundation and was a long-term member of the faculty at Stanford University.

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