Blaming the Messenger

Tuesday, October 30, 2001

K-12 Education

Opponents of the SAT say we don’t know what it measures and hint darkly that it smacks of discredited IQ testing. Decades ago, the distinguished psychometrician John Carroll stated, correctly, that the verbal SAT is an "advanced vocabulary test." At a lower level so are other standardized tests in common use, such as the verbal portions of the Stanford 9, the ITBS, the CTBS, and, most significant of all, the well-studied AFQT, taken by those who enter military service. The verbal portions of these tests are highly correlated with one another and with real-world competencies in the armed forces, in college, and in the workplace.

Critics of the SAT concede that it was devised to ensure fairness in admission to elite colleges but argue that it has become unfair to able students who do not perform well on fill-in-the-bubble tests, to those who belong to ethnic groups and so are on uneasy terms with the cultural assumptions of the verbal SAT, and to those whose parents are not rich enough to pay for the expensive SAT courses that claim to raise scores. The result has been ethnically and racially unrepresentative admission to top universities. These sins against equity are compounded by sins against proper educational goals. Instead of prodding students to think about the civil rights movement or Shakespeare’s plays, schools now run cram courses to improve performance on standardized tests.

Critics of the SAT have chosen the wrong target. The right target is K–12 public education.

These are reasonable criticisms, but they are accompanied by vague recommendations for better tests that can disclose deeper skills than those measured by the verbal SAT or for tests that are based on the school curriculum. Yet no test of "alternative" skills has proved to be fair and valid. The idea of using tests based on the school curriculum is more promising, but so far no statewide curriculum is specific enough to permit curriculum-based tests that are fair. Until fair and valid curriculum-based tests are developed, it is irresponsible to abandon a test like the SAT that is fair and valid.

I sympathize with the social motives behind the misguided attempts to do away with the SAT. I too want able disadvantaged students to have the opportunity to attend top colleges. But SAT critics have chosen the wrong target. The right target is K–12 public education. The most promising alternatives to the SAT—curriculum-based tests—are themselves ultimately means for improving scores on the SAT by improving the underlying vocabulary knowledge that the SAT measures. Statewide curriculum-based tests recently introduced in Virginia have already produced a rise in SAT-style verbal tests.

Until fair and valid alternatives are developed, it is irresponsible to abandon a test like the SAT, which is fair and valid.

So I agree that curriculum-based tests offer the most promising way for schools to overcome inequities created by class and caste. But the virtues of curriculum-based tests in no way invalidate the verbal SAT or similar tests, which are currently the only good instruments to calibrate the accuracy of curriculum-based tests that are offered as alternatives. If school-based tests do not produce rises in the verbal SAT, then something is wrong with the tests and the schools. Blaming the SAT is a short-sighted way of taking the heat off the public schools to provide genuine equality of educational opportunity.