February 23, 2001
Calling the overemphasis on SAT I scores in admissions "the educational equivalent of a nuclear arms race," University of California President Richard C. Atkinson will announce Sunday (Feb. 18) he is recommending that the university no longer include the SAT I test as a requirement for students applying to UC's eight undergraduate campuses.
In a speech to the American Council on Education annual meeting in Washington, D.C., Atkinson said that while he continues to be a strong supporter of standardized tests, he favors abandoning the SAT I because it does not have a demonstrable relationship with the student's course of study and often leads to a preoccupation with improving test-taking skills at the expense of mastering high school subject matter.
"This proposal is about fairness in educational decision making," Atkinson said. "Applicants for higher education should be assessed on the basis of their achievements in high school, in the context of the opportunities available to them. Standardized tests are fair and useful admissions tools when they assess what students have actually learned in school - not how they rate on an ill-defined measure of aptitude or intelligence."
The University of California currently is one of the nation's largest users of the SAT tests.
Atkinson's proposal has been sent to the systemwide Academic Council, the representative body of the faculty, which has responsibility for the university's admissions standards.
Atkinson's proposal calls for the development of new standardized tests directly tied to the college preparatory courses required of students applying to UC. He is recommending that, on an interim basis, UC continue to require that students take the SAT II exams in writing, mathematics and a third subject test chosen by the student from a UC-approved list.
"The SAT II begins to approximate what I judge to be an appropriate test for the university's admissions process," said Atkinson, whose research specialty is memory and cognition. "It tests students on specific subject areas that are well defined and readily described."
Atkinson's proposal is intended to further the standards-based movement in California and across the country. Over the long term, he said, replacing the SAT I with other standardized tests at UC "will help strengthen high school curricula and pedagogy, create a stronger connection between what students accomplish in high school and their likelihood of being admitted to UC, and focus student attention on mastery of subject matter rather than test preparation."
Under California's Master Plan for Higher Education, UC enrolls its freshman class from the top 12.5 percent of graduating high school students statewide.
Atkinson's proposal to no longer require the SAT I is part of a series of steps aimed at enhancing the accessibility and affordability of the University of California for students from all backgrounds. As part of that effort, the university this fall will begin admitting students who are within the top 4 percent of their high school's graduating class, regardless of statewide standing or standardized test scores, if they have taken the required coursework.
Another proposal still under faculty review would offer admission to students in the top 4 percent to 12.5 percent of their high school graduating class, regardless of their statewide academic standing or test scores. These students would be automatically admitted to a UC campus, provided they first attended a community college for two years.
In recommending that UC reconsider its use of the SAT I, Atkinson urged the faculty to adopt several criteria for new standardized tests. In particular, he said that the academic competencies to be tested should be clearly defined; that students from any comprehensive California high school should be able to score well if they mastered the curriculum; and that in reviewing their test scores, students should be able to understand where they did well or fell short and how they might improve their performance in the future.
Atkinson said that a perception among ethnic minority groups that the SAT I test is unfair cannot be easily dismissed.
"Of course, minorities are concerned about the fact that, on average, their children score lower than white and Asian American students," he said. "The real basis of their concern, however, is that they have no way of knowing what the SAT measures and, therefore, have no basis for assessing its fairness or helping their children acquire the skills to do better."
If Atkinson's SAT I proposal wins the approval of the faculty and the Board of Regents, the earliest it could be implemented is for the entering class of fall 2003.
Atkinson acknowledged that while many others share his concerns, there is "no consensus on what to do or where to start. In many ways," he declared, "we are caught up in the educational equivalent of a nuclear arms race. We know that this overemphasis on test scores hurts all involved, especially students. But we also know that anyone or any institution opting out of the competition does so at considerable risk.
Nevertheless, he said, "Change is long overdue. Accordingly, I am recommending that UC change its test requirements in the admissions process."