Are the S.A.T. Exams (a) Helpful, (b) Harmful or (c) Neither? a Critic Says It's a Toss-Up

updated 04/27/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/27/1981 01:00AM

This month some 2.5 million college applicants and their parents are anxiously checking their mailboxes for acceptances and rejections. A crucial component of this annual ordeal is the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), which is given to half of the college hopefuls. It is only one of the dozens of standardized tests which are now administered to prospective lawyers, medical students and civil servants, or to certify fire fighters, stockbrokers, urban planners, auto mechanics, nurses and even diplomats. Though the controversial computer-graded exams have become gatekeepers regulating advancement in American society, they are far from infallible. Two high school students recently discovered errors in exam questions, and lawyer Andrew J. Strenio Jr. has published a broad-gauge attack on the whole system. A graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School, Strenio himself always performed well with his test-room #2 pencil (701 math, 752 verbal on the SATs' 200-800 scale; 762 on the law boards). But noticing the travails of friends who were "as smart or smarter than I was, "he launched into research that culminated in the publication of his first book, The Testing Trap (Rawson, Wade, $14.95), a highly critical examination of the examiners. Strenio, 29, grew up in Pennsylvania and Connecticut and now lives in suburban Washington with his wife, Judith, a statistician. Last July he took a leave from law practice to accept a one-year appointment to the staff of the President's Council of Economic Advisers. With Peter D. Robinson of PEOPLE he discussed his objections to the tests he calls "a modern obsession."

Do the SATs truly measure "scholastic aptitude"?

No, and even the test industry might admit that if pressed. The SATs don't measure the quality of the student's high school, either, though many people think they do. What the administering Educational Testing Service claims is that the SAT predicts how well a student will perform in freshman year at college. That's all. What it measures, they say, is "developed reasoning ability," which turns out to be skills that are largely related to reading comprehension. But it says nothing about research ability, motivation, creativity or character.

You seem to be saying that the test measures mostly how students take tests. Is even freshman performance really predictable from SAT scores?

The record is unimpressive. The fact is that SAT scores by themselves usually predict college grades no better than high school grade-point averages do.

How precise are standardized test scores?

Not as precise as the public—which is generally awed by numbers—believes. Statistically, there is a two-thirds probability that any given SAT score could have been about 30 points higher or lower owing to variables like how much sleep a person got, how nervous he or she was, how hot the room was, whether the person in the next seat was making noise, and so on. So a standardized test score is really just an approximation.

Do colleges weigh SAT results heavily?

Yes, though the College Board [an association of educators that sponsors the entrance exams] tries to downplay the importance of SAT scores. It publicized its own 1979 survey finding that only 2 percent of colleges make test scores the "single most important factor." At the same time, the study showed conflicting evidence: 59 percent of the four-year colleges said SATs were "very important" and 40 percent of those same schools had minimum score requirements—cutoffs below which applicants are automatically rejected. These tend to be the large schools with the most applicants. In fairness, some colleges are de-emphasizing the SAT, but it's not clear whether they've taken a more balanced view or are just responding to a decline in applications.

What are the limitations of the multiple-choice format?

One feature of standardized tests is that they ask many questions—sometimes several hundred—in a brief amount of time. This denies you the luxury of thinking carefully about your responses and it forces the tester to write questions that are rarely deep and challenging. Creativity and nonconformity are discouraged in favor of facile, nimble judgments. In the verbal section, recognizing grammatical errors or demonstrating comprehension of sentences given to you is a technical skill and has little to do with the ability to write. Clear writing requires organization and ideas.

Is there more?

Another problem is that you can't present the reasons for your choices. A lucky guess gets full credit even though the person didn't understand what was going on. And the system penalizes brilliant reasoning, which some critics have argued deserves recognition even if it doesn't lead to an absolutely correct solution of the problem. In fact, some exceptionally bright people who get high grades in school do poorly on standardized tests just because they get into the questions on a level the test makers never intended. Ambiguities in the wording can set them going in circles.

Will a preparation course raise your score?

A 1976 study by the Federal Trade Commission found an average gain of 25 points on both the math and the verbal sections for students at one of the review schools. But a recent study by Samuel Messick of ETS claims that 40 hours of coaching on verbal and math exams raises scores only on the average of 13 and 20 points respectively. Any more time spent on reviewing, says Messick, does not increase scores proportionately.

How good are the review courses?

They range from execrable to helpful, and you have to be very careful. The best offer a substantial number of hours—as many as 45—spread over 11 weeks. Avoid the one-, two-or three-session courses, no matter how many hours are involved. You can't cram successfully for these tests. The Stanley Kaplan chain, which got the best results in the FTC study, merits your attention if you live near one of its offices. My advice is shop around. Also, if you've decided to spend the money, take a course before your first crack at the exam, since some colleges may average successive scores.

Is it ethical to take a review course?

Under present conditions, I can't blame anyone who decides to take one, and it is estimated that over 50,000 prospective test takers do every year. The expense of the courses—up to $300—necessarily raises an ethical issue because it excludes the less affluent. If you can raise your score through expensive coaching, then the test becomes a measure of wealth rather than of ability.

Do test results bear this out?

The College Board released some startling statistics for 1974, showing a steady relationship between SAT scores and family income. Students who scored 200 to 249 had an average family income of $8,639. From there, income shot up with each score level, topping out at the 750-800 range with average family incomes of $24,124.

How does the emphasis on test scores affect secondary schools?

It tempts schools to teach only the limited skills that are on the test. This happens in response to not only SATs but also other types of standardized tests like minimum competency tests for promotion. Some textbook publishers have hopped on the bandwagon by gearing their books to certain tests and selling them on that basis.

Are the tests racially biased?

Not intentionally. The test publishers do try to screen that out. However, some questions unavoidably contain cultural biases—in terms of vocabulary or references to things ghetto children, say, wouldn't be familiar with, such as the word "aria." Some bias is acceptable—the college boards are given in English. That's a requirement for success in America. What concerns me most about bias is the effect of tests on grade-school children.

What happens?

When you give a 10-year-old Hispanic girl an IQ test in English, she can be branded for life as slow or even mentally retarded. From that point on nothing is ever expected of her. Even for those who speak English at home, the tests can end up magnifying injustices. Children often will live up or down to the expectations that are held for them. If you keep telling them that the tests say they're not so bright, they might internalize that opinion. If you carry that around with you, it's the worst of all possible things.

Can you be more specific?

Well, Einstein was a late bloomer. Can you imagine him taking an Achievement Test in physics, thinking about the grand notions of relativity, and not doing well on some of the trivia that's tested? And for all I know, Samuel Clemens was not great at analogies and speed reading. But should he be discouraged from writing?

Should standardized tests be junked?

No, they can be a very constructive tool when their limitations are understood and when they are applied as one of a number of criteria, not the dominant one. Also, I'm very much in favor of holding people to high standards of performance. I just want those standards to be things that accurately indicate our abilities, not just things schools resort to because they're simple and inexpensive to use.

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