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Friday, May 13, 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 four in a four-part series. Read part one, part two and part three.

By the time I gave my American Council on Education speech, we had four years of data under the new policy on all freshmen who were admitted and subsequently enrolled at a UC campus. We had approximately 78,000 student protocols. A protocol included the student’s high school grades, SAT I scores (verbal and quantitative), three SAT II scores, family income, family educational background, the quality of the high school the student attended, rA.C.E./ethnicity and several other variables. And, of course, the protocol included the grade record of the student in her or his freshman year at a UC campus.

When I gave my A.C.E. speech, an analysis of the UC data was not yet available. However, a few months later, two researchers at the UC Office of the President, Saul Geiser and Roger Studley, completed a seminal study on predictive validity using the data set. The study examined the effectiveness of high school grades and various combinations of SAT I and SAT II scores in predicting success in college. A full account of the study has been published in the journal Educational Assessment and is available on the UC Web site.

In brief, the study shows that the SAT II is a far better predictor of college grades than the SAT I. The combination of high school grades and the three SAT IIs account for 22.2 percent of the variance in first-year college grades. When the SAT I is added to the combination of high school grades and the SAT IIs, the explained variance increases from 22.2 percent to 22.3 percent, a trivial increment.

The data indicate that the predictive validity of the SAT II is much less affected by differences in socioeconomic background than is the SAT I. After controlling for family income and parents’ education, the predictive power of the SAT II is undiminished, whereas the relationship between SAT I scores and UC grades virtually disappears. The SAT II is not only a better predictor, but also a fairer test insofar as it is demonstrably less sensitive than the SAT I to differences in family income and parents’ education.

These findings for the full UC data set hold equally well for three major disciplinary subsets of the data, namely for (1) physical sciences/mathematics/engineering, (2) biological sciences, and (3) social sciences/humanities. Across these disciplinary areas, SAT II is consistently a better predictor of student performance than SAT I.

Analyses with respect to the racial-ethnic impact of SAT I versus SAT II indicate that, in general, there are only minor differences between the tests. The SAT II is a better predictor of UC grades for most racial-ethnic groups than the SAT I, but both tests tend to “over-predict” freshman grades for underrepresented minorities to a small but measurable extent. Eliminating SAT I in favor of SAT II would have little effect on rates of UC eligibility and admissions for students from different racial-ethnic groups.

The UC data yield another interesting result. Of the various tests that make up the SAT I (verbal and quantitative) and the three SAT IIs, the best single predictor of student performance was the SAT II writing test. Given the importance of writing ability at the college level, it should not be surprising that a test of actual writing skills correlates strongly with college grades.

Once the Geiser-Studley study was made public, opposition to a change in the SAT I quickly died out. And, the UC faculty was fully engaged in planning for a new admissions test. In March 2002, Gaston Caperton in his role as president of the College Board, announced that they would eliminate the SAT I as it then stood and replA.C.E. it – on a nationwide basis – with a new test very much in accord with my original proposal and the planning that the UC faculty had already done.

Since then, the College Board has been consulting with UC faculty and other groups around the country about the new test. The test that is now being developed includes: a 25-minute essay requiring students to produce an actual writing sample, a more substantial mathematics section assessing higher-level mathematical skills, and a reading comprehension section that does not include verbal analogies. I believe this is an excellent solution that reflects the changes called for in my A.C.E. speech.

When I look back I’m amazed at the speed with which change has occurred. The A.C.E. speech was in February 2001, the College Board made its decision to overhaul the SAT I in March of 2002, the new test is now in use for students entering college in fall 2006. In a brief time, college admissions will have undergone a revolutionary change – a change that will affect millions of young people.

My granddaughter will be in the first group of high school students to take the new SAT I. As a sophomore she took the PSAT – a preparatory test to taking the old SAT I – and did brilliantly. She was not hesitant to accuse me of complicating her future. Her high school quickly adjusted to the proposed changes, and now has students writing a 25-minute essay once a week in preparation for the new test.

One of the clear lessons of history is that colleges and universities, through their admissions requirements, strongly influence what is taught in the schools. From my viewpoint, the most important reason for changing the SAT is to send a clear message to K-12 students, their teachers and parents that learning to write and mastering a solid background in mathematics is of critical importance. The changes that are being made in the SAT go a long way toward accomplishing that goal.

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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