Re-Examining Standardized Tests--Again

Experts Quietly Wrangle Over the Implications of SATs and ACHs

Standardized testing became a hot political issue several years ago when "truth-in-testing" advocates launched an intensive effort to pierce the secrecy shrouding the admissions tests. After New York State approved truth-in-testing legislation, an embattled Educational Testing Services (ETS)--which designs and administers the tests--began to offer disclosure nationwide of questions, answers and scoring procedures. Testing issues have left the public spotlight since then, but the testing community is now quietly wrangling over just how and why the tests should be used.

When admissions officials here disclosed this February that they had begun putting some what increased emphasis on Achievement tests, they drew mixed reactions from colleagues. Harvard officials explained that they had acted on studies showing that upgraded Achievement tests tended to predict academic success freshman year better than the usually-stressed Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). But the University's shift reflects but one side of a growing debate among educators over just which test is more free of bias, whether colleges should be testing for innate ability or proven achievement, and whether any established test is really an accurate predictor of either.

Harvard is by no means the only Ivy League school to discover that the Achievements more closely foreshadow academic performance: Dartmouth is currently shifting slightly towards the tests, and Princeton officials have found the scores to be particularly revealing--especially in comparing students with similarly stratospheric SAT scores. Harvard was just "stating what a lot of us think is true." Princeton dean of admissions James Wickenden says.

But as the controversy stirred up by Harvard's disclosure showed, many in the test community believe using Achievements, better predictors though they may be, favors students with better high school backgrounds Yale, for instance, has chosen not to increase its use of Achievements, admissions dean Worth David argues that among other reasons, to some extent the SAT is more "curriculum free" than the Achievements.

The debate over "aptitude versus achievement" widely considered to be illustrated by the ongoing SAT Achievement dichotomy, is a long-standing one. Those who wrote concerned or angry letters to the New York Times disputing Harvard's Achievement test emphasis advanced the same general arguments that, in the late 1920s, led Harvard President Eliot and some other educators to form the College Board and later institute SATs.

Critics of the emphasis change contend that admissions tests on specific material handicap underprivileged students whose high schools offered less sophisticated programs.

Concern over the discriminatory potential of Achievements has increased the desirability of the SAT, especially to those who believe that the exam tests some native ability--one distinct from external influences or curriculum variations. But testing moguls increasingly suggest that the SAT itself is an "achievement" test, albeit a general one. Indeed, the College Board itself has never subscribed to the view that the SAT weighs aptitude alone. "We're consistent in our description of the test as one subject to schooling and other influences...ETS never claimed it was a measure of innate or genetic factors," says Robert G. Cameron, executive director for research and development at the College Board. The use of SATS and Achievements to flesh out the "aptitude versus achievement" debate, then seems clouded by growing doubts over whether the SAT really bears any relation to aptitude.

College admissions officials who continue to use the SAT recognize that it reflects more than innate factors, but argue that it remains a valuable common denominator with which to compare different students. Dean K. Whitla, associate dean of admissions here and a testing expert, dismisses that outlook. The SAT, argues Whitla, is merely an achievement test in subjects like reading; he maintains that "you could throw all the verbal SAT and English Achievement questions in a basket and you probably wouldn't be able to separate them again."

Other admissions officers, like Yale's David, favor the SAT as a relatively better judge of aptitude. In their view, SATs are at least less curriculum-linked than the achievement tests and so offer some value as an equalizer. "Some schools just don't have the preparation for Achievements and the SATs tell more," says Richard G. Jaeger, associate director of admissions at Dartmouth David agrees that the SAT is somewhat effective as an equalizer: "Since the kind of achievement being measured is picked up over time, it is to a certain extent curriculum-free."

The consensus within the testing community that the SAT measures a type of achievement has prompted some to press to rename the test--to remove any implication that it reveals unchanging aptitude. Many admissions officials, for their part, seem unconcerned by the test's name, saying the test's function is well-known.

Using standardized tests as an equalizer--albeit an imperfect one--has spurred discussion of an even broader issue: whether any standardized test. SAT or Achievement, actually can illuminate a student's basic abilities. Many have charged that high scorers on any such test are likely to be well-off and to have attended better high schools. Whitla, however, dismisses the notion that there exist "bright and noble savages"--students who could succeed here academically in spite of preparation so poor that they could not do well on Achievements.

Admissions deans and test-makers alike say they are aware that both SAT and Achievement scores are limited as indicators of intrinsic talent. As a result, Harvard stress a network of factors including grades, recommendations, interviews, and application essays. Adds Dartmouth's Jaeger "If we were sure that numbers tell-all, we could choose a class in seconds."

William R. Fitzsimmons '67, acting director of admissions here, is emphatic about the scores' role as only one indicator among many--all of which cast light on the type of background that may have affected the scores. But few admissions officers think the tests' imperfections impairs their ability to predict performance. Ignoring the tests because they suggest that poorer students have less education smacks of "killing the bearer of bad news," says Robert E. Klitgaard '68, special assistant to President Bok and a testing expert, contending that admissions committees must consider a student's preparedness. Yale's David concedes both tests can be culturally biased, but that college admissions is not the place to address that basis. "So many layers of influence" take effect over the years of schooling, he notes.

The argument surrounding the tests, then, seems to boil down to whether colleges should assess preparedness or try to compensate for possibly culturally biased tests. "If you want to know whether someone's qualified in chemistry," says Whitla, "you give him a chem exam." "If the color of your eyes will help me" decide between applicants here, says Peter H. Richardson, MIT's director of admissions, "then I'll take it on the color of your eyes."

While Achievement tests obviously correlate more closely with high school curricula, admissions officers are far from agreeing exactly what the connection is. Most say a strong high school will bring up a student's scores, possibly shortchanging those enrolled in lesser schools.