Thursday, May 12, 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 three in a four-part series. Read part one and part two.

Since my keynote speech in February 2001, I had received hundreds of letters from people describing their experiences with the SAT. I was on “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.” I was in a debate on “Good Morning America.” The major magazines, such as Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report, had cover stories. The one I liked best was Time magazine; they devoted a large part of an issue to the subject of college admissions testing.

Nicholas Lemann, a reporter who authored the book The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, wrote one of the Time magazine articles that I particularly like. The piece includes a photograph of me on one page and facing me on the opposite page is President George W. Bush. The question over the photos is, “What Do These Two Men Have In Common?” Lemann’s answer was that we both supported the idea of standardized testing. A few clever souls speculated that what the two of us had in common was the same SAT score. Fortunately, I was able to respond, “No, that’s not the case. I was a student at the University of Chicago which, at that time, had its own entrance exam, and it certainly wasn’t the SAT.”

Some people assumed that I was arguing for no testing at all; they hadn’t bothered to read the actual speech. For a few weeks anti-testing groups saw me as a hero, until they realized that I was not proposing a ban on standardized testing.

Unfortunately, in one discussion with reporters I described the impact of my granddaughter’s experience on my thinking, and after that she was often mentioned in their stories. She was embarrassed by the attention and not too happy with her grandfather. I’ll return to her views on this matter later.

The College Board’s response to my speech was less than enthusiastic. There were some sharp exchanges in the press and a number of SAT supporters wrote scathing articles; a few got a little too personal. Some of the articles were written by college admissions officers who failed to disclose that they had been paid consultants to the College Board. And efforts were made to enlist key UC faculty to oppose the proposal. But, as I will explain later, the College Board did, in the end, agree to totally overhaul the SAT. The president of the College Board, Gaston Caperton, deserves much of the credit for what took place. He had served as the governor of West Virginia and in that role had been particularly effective in improving K-12 education. As the SAT debate evolved, he showed remarkable leadership. Some of the senior people at the College Board wanted to maintain the status quo, but as Caperton immersed himself in the issue, his perspectives changed and he concluded that a major overhaul of the test was needed. I admire Caperton greatly. He showed courage and leadership, and the forthcoming changes in the SAT I would not have occurred without his involvement.

At this point it will be useful to provide some history. The UC faculty, under the university’s tradition of shared governance, have responsibility for the admissions process. That responsibility is exercised by the Board on Admissions and Relations with Schools of the UC Academic Senate. In 1960, when many universities had already adopted the SAT, UC still did not require the test in its admissions process. B.O.A.R.S., at that time, launched a study to compare the SAT and several achievement tests as predictors of college performance. The results were mixed. The achievement tests proved a more useful predictor of success than did the SAT, but the benefit of both tests appeared marginal. B.O.A.R.S. decided not to introduce admissions tests and to continue to rely on high school grades.

In 1968, UC began requiring the SAT I and three SAT II achievement tests, although the applicant’s SAT scores were not considered in the regular admissions process. However, in special cases high SAT scores were a way of admitting promising students whose high school grades fell below the UC standard. UC requires applicants to take a specific set of courses in high school; poor grades in these courses could be offset by high SAT scores. Lemann, in his book, The Big Test, asserts that UC’s adoption of the SAT was a turning point for the College Board. Once UC required the test, the SAT became the gold standard for admissions tests. To this day, more students applying to UC take the SAT than at any other institution.

By 1979, UC faced increasing enrollment pressures and finally adopted the SAT as a formal part of the regular admissions process. That year BOARS established UC’s Eligibility Index: a sliding scale combining the high school grade point average with the SAT I score to determine whether a student is UC eligible. The Eligibility Index was established because several studies showed UC accepted students well below its mandated top 12.5 % of statewide high school graduates. Note that only the SAT I score was included in the Eligibility Index, even though applicants were still required to take three SAT II tests. All eligible students were guaranteed acceptance at one of the UC campuses, but not necessarily the campus of their choice. Campus admissions officers at each of the UC campuses used the full array of data, including the SAT II scores, in making individual campus decisions.

In 1995, shortly after I became president, B.O.A.R.S. – with my strong endorsement -redefined the Eligibility Index to include GPA plus scores on the SAT I and three SAT IIs (writing, mathematics and a third subject of the student’s choice). This was done on the basis of several small-scale studies suggesting that the SAT IIs were good predictors of college success. B.O.A.R.S. established a weighting scheme that had the principal weight on the GPA, but with a relative weight of one on the SAT I compared with a weight of three on the SAT IIs. So, in 1995 the word went out to high school students and their counselors that the SAT II had taken on a new significance.

Read part four.

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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