There’s a reason the College Board scrubbed “aptitude” from the name of its big admission test two decades ago. The idea of a Scholastic Aptitude Test left the organization open to criticism that it believed some people were born to go to college and some weren’t.
The latest version of what is now simply called the SAT drops questions about arcane vocabulary, continuing a long move away from testing for aptitude as the College Board seeks to tie the exam more closely to what students learn in the classroom. Previous revisions had dropped antonym, analogy and quantitative-comparison questions that were also seen as detached from the nation’s school curriculum.
The test’s format matters to millions of high school students who are seeking every possible edge to get into the colleges of their choice. They perceive, rightly or wrongly, that a swing of 20 points in math or 30 in reading, on a test with a maximum of 800 in each subject, could prove decisive.
Whether the SAT offers a valid window into a student’s prospects of college success — perennially debated — will get new scrutiny with the most recent overhaul. Proponents say the scores provide colleges with important information when viewed with grades and other credentials. Critics say the whole exercise is needless and unfair.
Some prominent college admission officers praised the new SAT after the release of sample questions last week. “There’s a potential that this test could be even more predictive of success in college than it has been in the past,” said Jeremiah Quinlan, Yale University’s dean of undergraduate admissions, who is a member of a College Board advisory group. The overhaul will take effect in 2016, when current high school freshmen sit for the college entrance exam.
But one testing expert offered a contrarian view: Testing for aptitude can help colleges identify promising students at lousy schools who otherwise might be overlooked.
“If students’ preparations differ (e.g. at good schools vs. bad schools), achievement will go down in the bad schools. That is why we call them ‘bad,’” Earl Hunt, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington, said in an e-mail. “Aptitude tests, which emphasize more ‘on the spot’ reasoning over recall of facts, can be used to identify talent or lack of it amongst students with poor preparation.”
In the 1930s, Harvard University President James Bryant Conant championed the nascent SAT for that very reason as he sought to promote merit over privilege.
“What Conant didn’t like about achievement tests was that they favored rich boys whose parents could buy them top-flight high school instruction,” educator Nicholas Lemann wrote in his 1999 book “The Big Test.”
The founders of the ACT, a rival admission test that from the beginning focused on achievement, saw it much differently. They believed an assessment geared toward what was taught in school would be more accessible to students and useful to educators.
As it turned out, scores on the SAT and the ACT track with family income for a host of reasons. Affluent parents can spend big money to help their children prepare for both tests. Their children also benefit from exposure to a wide variety of cultural and intellectual experiences outside school. Their children also have access to better public and private schools based on where they live and what they can afford.
The SAT boomed after World War II, but it faced increasing criticism in the 1970s and 1980s from people who saw it as biased against minority groups. Even the test’s name came under fire.
The president of the College Board in 1992, Donald M. Stewart, wrote that year in a letter to The Washington Post that the SAT “is not a test of aptitude in the sense of inborn abilities but of learned skills in mathematical and verbal reasoning, which are strongly affected by the quality of schooling a child receives.”
By 1994, the Scholastic Aptitude Test was renamed the bland but redundant Scholastic Assessment Test. A few years later, SAT became the official name. Now it is rare to hear anyone at the College Board talk publicly about aptitude.
“Aptitude testing is an approach that research has shown to be effective for college admissions and placement,” said Cyndie Schmeiser, the College Board’s chief of assessment. “However, the College Board has moved toward achievement testing in response to the need for better information about student readiness in [kindergarten through 12th grade] and to increase our college and career readiness rates.”
Schmeiser said the College Board would seek to help teachers and schools “learn from the most highly effective classrooms in the nation,” an acknowledgment that school quality is a key issue.
A former ACT executive, Schmeiser came to the College Board last year. Her arrival was seen as a further sign of the organization's desire to make the SAT more of an achievement test. The revised test’s emphasis on “extended thinking” — and its focus on core math concepts and evidence-based analysis of texts from science, social studies and humanities — appear to echo what most states are seeking to accomplish in public schools through the Common Core standards in English and math.
Bob Schaeffer, a spokesman for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a critic of both the SAT and ACT, said changes to the SAT amount to “cosmetic surgery” that will do little to improve its predictive power.
“High school grades will continue to forecast students’ graduation chances more accurately,” Schaeffer said in a statement. “The exam will still under-predict the performance of females, students whose home language is not English and older applicants. . . . SAT scores will remain a better measure of family income than of college readiness.”
But Stuart Schmill, dean of admissions for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — who like Yale’s Quinlan has advised the College Board — said the changes are significant.
“This test will be better aligned with what students should be learning in high school to prepare for college,” he said, “and that just makes sense.”