Rethinking the SAT: The Future of Standardized Testing in University Admissions
reviewed by Gail Corrado - 2004
Title: Rethinking the SAT: The Future of Standardized Testing in University Admissions
Author(s): Rebecca Zwick (Editor)
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 0415948355, Pages: 367, Year: 2004
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Rethinking the SAT: The Future of Standardized Testing in University Admissions, edited by Rebecca Zwick, is a collection of essays that grew out of a conference on college admissions generally and the SAT more particularly. The conference was, in part, an opportunity for informed public debate on the issues raised in a speech given by the University of California (UC) president Richard Atkinson in February of 2001 in which he voiced his opposition to the use of the SAT I test in UC college admissions. The book was, in the editor’s words, “to be an edited and reviewed compilation of the strongest conference contributions that would be accessible to a wide readership …” The resulting volume contains several very important essays that help us understand the complex set of issues that surround the problem of assessing a student’s readiness to succeed in college. The book is a worthwhile contribution to any library on the topic, but it is also very annoying to read. Compilations, even those that are edited and reviewed, are liable to contain essays that repeat each other’s points. This is no exception. It is annoying to have to re-read the same information again and again when the information is not repeated to illuminate a new point or to underscore a new perspective. In addition, the book’s organization does little to help the reader maneuver through the web of issues surrounding college admissions. The essays are also uneven in length and quality, but the essays that are good are very good indeed (e.g., Geiser and Studley as well as Gandara and also Zwick).
The college admissions process needs to be re-thought, and the use of tests in that process needs to be re-examined. This book helps us participate in the re-examination by providing us with a picture of the issues involved. It contains general essays about what we are trying to accomplish as we set out an admissions process and what effect university decisions have on k-12 institutions. There are also essays that help lay out what has happened to the admissions process over the years, how standardized tests like the SAT began to be involved in that process, and why there are now questions about the appropriateness of using the SAT.
The principle discussions surrounding the SAT I center either on the effect of the use of the SAT I on minority enrollment or on whether the SAT I has predictive validity, where that validity is defined as predicting university GPA. One of the broadest discussions of these issues can be found in the essay by Saul Geiser and Roger Studley. The other discussion surrounding the use of the SAT I concerns whether or not it can serve to help universities identify unrealized potential (aptitudes that have not expressed themselves in school grades or achievement examinations). The consensus is generally that the SAT cannot perform this function, although Lohman suggests (contrary to most other contributors) that finding a good test of aptitudes might well serve to boost minority enrollment.
One weakness in the studies in this volume is that there is insufficient discussion about the way we determine predictive validity. Generally university grades are used to determine university success. That might be a very narrow way to make an appropriate assessment. For example, two students with mediocre GPAs might have very different prospects. If one student had a mediocre GPA because all of the mathematics and science grades were superior but all humanities were inferior (or the other way around) we might make one assessment about the student’s prospects. If, on the other hand, a student had a mediocre GPA because the student’s grades in all of his/her courses were mediocre, then we might make quite another determination. GPA is a very coarse-grained determinant of success. Alternatives are discussed, but only briefly, and the case for and against the use of the various standardized tests rests wholly on the effect they have on predicting GPA.
Zwick, in her introduction to the third part of the book, makes both a brave and a critically important point (and one that should be getting a great deal more attention than it usually gets in scholarly discussion). She notes, that Derek Briggs’ study on SAT coaching “was unusual in that he was an employee of neither a testing company nor a test-preparation company when he prepared it.” The rest of the book, indeed most other books on testing and journal articles as well are filled with essays that cite myriad studies, but we are generally not warned when the authors of these studies are or have been affiliated with companies that have a stake in the outcome of the research. This is no way to conduct research that has such serious policy implications.
The issues explored by the essays in this book are critical to any education professional’s understanding of why it is difficult to devise an efficient, effective, and fair admissions procedure. It is also an important display of the state of the research in this area. I think it should be required reading for anyone interested in educational policy, for what it does discuss, for what it doesn’t discuss, and for the way the particular arguments are made.