A FEW DAYS AGO young Americans by the hundreds of thousands subjected themselves to what has become one of our national rites of spring. No, they did not splash in the waters of Fort Lauderdale, sit in the bleachers for Opening Day, or dance merrily around the Maypole. Instead they gathered in bleak classrooms and assembly halls, No. 2 pencils clutched in their sweaty hands, to undergo a test the results of which will have incalculable effects on their lives and self-esteem. It is called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, and according to David Owen it is a fraud.
Much has been written in the past about the SATs and the Educational Testing Service, the profitable non-profit company that devises and promotes them, but there has been nothing quite so comprehensive and devastating as None of the Above. Not merely does it set forth the familiar arguments: that the SATs are culturally and racially biased; that the multiple-choice system under which they operate is impossibly ambiguous and capricious; that the claim they are an objective measurement of intelligence is pure myth; that students can be coached to improve their scores; that they give an edge to the prosperous and well-educated. Not merely does Owen demonstrate all of this, but he also proves conclusively that the SATs do not do what ETS claims they do: they do not measure "aptitude."
To be sure, what "aptitude" is can be the subject of wide disagreement, as Owen found when he interviewed people at ETS (most of whom were extremely hostile to him) and elsewhere. Let us say for the sake of argument, though, that aptitude is innate intelligence -- a person's raw ability, the gifts he brings to the starting gate before they are developed and refined by education and experience. This, when you get right down to it, is what ETS claims the SAT measures; in the SAT everyone is equal, ETS argues, and the test measures everyone equally.
But as Owen conclusively demonstrates, precisely the opposite is true. The SAT does not measure innate intelligence -- as if so elusive a quality could ever be quantified -- but rather the test-taker's skill at taking the SAT and his familiarity with the cultural biases of the organization that put it together. Those biases are essentially middle-class, provincial, complacent, and the student who is aware of the notably predictable ways in which they manifest themselves in the tests is going to score highly; as one SAT "coach" told Owen, "I tell my students to look for stupid answers to stupid questions written by stupid people."
This "coach" is making a nice living from training high- school students to take a test that ETS stubbornly insists is uncoachable. It has no real alternative to that position, for to claim otherwise would be to refute its contention that the SAT measures "aptitude," a quality that presumably cannot be taught or learned. Problems do arise for ETS when students who have been privately coached raise their scores by 150 to 200 points, but ETS has an answer for that; it has, while still insisting that coaching doesn't help, gotten into the coaching business itself, making available preparation booklets for those who have the wherewithal to pay for them.
Of all the injustices that the SATs perpetrate and perpetuate, surely this financial test is the greatest. One "coach" puts it this way: "Most of our kids are wealthy. Those are the kids who have an advantage to begin with. And we're moving them up another level." ETS suggests to less privileged kids, Owen writes, that "the SAT would put them on an equal footing with the kids from the private schools," but this is a lie; "the odds have always been stacked against kids who aren't tuned to the ETS wavelength or who haven't spent their lives in schools where ETS tests are a way of life." Owen writes:
"ETS perpetuates the very inequalities it sometimes claims to eliminate and sometimes claims merely to measure. For all its sermonizing about equal opportunity, ETS is the powerful servant of the privileged. The company's executives wax lyrical about ghetto children rescued from poverty by their 600s. But the real beneficiaries of 'aptitude' testing are the offspring of the advantaged, who ascend from privilege to privilege on the strength of their scores and come to view those numbers as a moral justification for the comforts that are the trappings of their class. Tests like the SAT convert the tainted advantages of birth and wealth into the neutral currency of merit, enabling the fortunate to believe they have earned what they have merely been given."
THERE IS no hyperbole in that paragraph. The power of the tests, and therefore of ETS, is indeed daunting. This power "extends far beyond the matter of who is admitted and who is rejected, of who is hired and who is not"; what is taught in the schools is deeply influenced by what students are expected to do in the tests, and "since what is taught influences how we live, the effect of the tests reverberates through society." We like to think of ourselves as more egalitarian than the English or the Japanese, whose notorious tests mercilessly consign young people to white-collar or blue-collar lifetimes, but the effect of the ETS tests is to all intents and purposes the same; in the guise of equality, they institutionalize inequality.
They do so with the active if inexplicable cooperation of higher education. Inexplicable, that is, because as Owen amply documents, the SAT tests are used by only a handful of colleges and universities in the admissions process. "The overwhelming majority of colleges and universities in this country," he writes, "require standardized admissions tests but aren't using the results." As ETS itself has acknowledged, "Many colleges are not selective and admit nearly all applicants." In the entire country there are now about 50 or 60 colleges that are "selective," that use SAT scores in some measure to make admissions decisions: "The simple fact is that, to the extent it is used at all, the SAT is used mostly to help determine which wealthy young whites will attend which wealthy white colleges." Put another way, the public-school kid applying to a local four-year college or state university is in effect subsidizing a prep-school kid applying to Harvard or Brown.
This is the case, yet virtually all colleges require the tests and, worse, the applicants themselves have to pay the full cost of them. The information the colleges receive about the tests is free; the applicants pay for it. Add to the SAT tests ($11.50 each) the usual battery of achievement ($18 for three) and Advanced Placement ($46 each) and a kid can end up shelling out a lot of money: ETS "had tax-free revenues of $133 million in fiscal 1983, nearly half of it from College Board programs alone," and almost all of it from fees for other ETS tests taken by "people required to pay for the privilege of submitting to multiple-choice examinations in order to pass various checkpoints in America's social hierarchy."
If this isn't a scandal, it's a pretty good imitation of one. Millions of dollars are being unnecessarily spent by millions of people, many of whom do so at sacrifice, in order to take tests that do them no discernible good but that may do them quite evident harm if poor scores result in a loss of self-confidence. They are required to take them by colleges that also derive no discernible good from them but that can claim, if admissions procedures are challenged, that they provide a (wholly fictitious) measure of potential performance. The only people who do derive discernible good from them are those who work at ETS, where cafeteria lunches are subsidized, a swimming pool and jogging trails are provided, and chauffeured automobiles are provided for ranking executives.
This is what David Owen has to tell us in None of the Above. It's an angry book (though often a very funny one), and with good reason: the SAT is a scam.