Going Holistic

University of California President Richard C. Atkinson's loud call in February
for abolishing the use of the SAT I test in undergraduate admissions is likely to
have a lot more significance outside the UC system than within.

Atkinson's university has already spent the last four years quietly but
systematically de-emphasizing the test (originally called the Scholastic Aptitude
Test) in determining admissions eligibility, first by moving to admit all
applicants whose grades put them in the top 4 percent of their high school
classes, and more recently by placing increased emphasis on the three SAT II
tests--the subject matter exams (formerly called the achievement tests) in such
fields as composition, math, American history, and biology--that most UC
applicants are required to take. The SAT II is now weighted three times more
heavily than the SAT I in UC admissions considerations.

For a test that has long
been regarded as the gold standard in selective-college admissions (despite all
the caveats about overemphasizing its importance), the broader significance of
Atkinson's plan could be enormous. Some small colleges--Bates,
Bowdoin, and
Mount Holyoke, among others--have already
stopped requiring the SAT. Criticism of its use elsewhere has been mounting over
the last few years as race preferences, which were used to mitigate the test's
impact on minority admissions, have been prohibited in California, Washington,
and Texas. In Texas the federal appellate court decision banning affirmative
action prompted the legislature, with Governor George W. Bush's concurrence, to
adopt a policy of admitting any student in the top 10 percent of his or her high
school class to the state's selective universities. In Florida the threat of an
anti¬čaffirmative action initiative brought a preemptive strike by Governor Jeb
Bush, who replaced race preferences with a policy of admitting the top 20 percent
of each high school class to the state's public universities. As affirmative
action is systematically eradicated, standardized testing comes under siege. In
fact in this context, William Bowen and Derek Bok's 1998 book The
Shape of the River
, which argued in favor of race preferences in college
admissions, seems as much a defense of the SAT as it does of affirmative action.

It was largely UC's adoption of the SAT as an admissions requirement back in the
1960s that made the SAT a national test and gave the exam--now taken by some 1.2
million college applicants annually--a legitimacy not limited to selective
private institutions in the East. But Atkinson, a cognitive psychologist, thinks
the SAT test-prep hysteria "is compromising our educational system," and he has
been itching to dump the test for years. If UC, which is far and away the largest
customer for the test, eliminates the SAT requirement (a decision that must still
be approved by the faculty and the regents), it will send a loud message to a lot
of other places. Even Atkinson's announcement, leaked to the media before he
could formally make it, has generated an unprecedented reaction. As soon as he
delivered the comments, on February 18, the College Board, which runs the SAT
program, fired back. The test, said College Board President Gaston Caperton, is a
powerful tool. "To eliminate [it] ... is not fair to anyone."

But what may be
even more important than Atkinson's SAT challenge was his call for a more
"holistic," Ivy League¬čmodel method of choosing freshmen: judging each candidate
on the basis of his or her total record--grades, test scores, athletic or
artistic talent, handicaps overcome, social background, community service, and
the things he or she can contribute to the college and, ultimately, to society.
For those with long enough memories, that may sound a little too much like the
"whole man" standard by which elite colleges chose preppies and other
well-connected Wasps and excluded urban ethnics--Jews, particularly--in the
decades preceding (and, in many cases, immediately after) World War II. The SAT,
as its early boosters saw it, was a national measure not tied to particular
school curricula and thus a much fairer way to assess applicants, including those
scruffy city kids, who did not attend fancy schools. It also seemed to provide an
objective measure that mitigated the white-shoe preferences of the old-school
admission officers.

But like a lot of today's critics, Atkinson sees the SAT exactly the other way
around, as something that gives unfair advantage to students from privileged
homes who can afford Kaplan or Princeton
tutoring programs, and as the cause of an academically distorting,
quasi-corrupt test-prep frenzy that for some kids begins at the age of 12.
Atkinson doesn't want to drop tests; the SAT II's, he believes, tend to be better
predictors of college achievement. And in his view, they reward the student's
high school effort--not something akin to native "intelligence." (In addition,
among UC applicants, the ethnic gap on the SAT II tests is considerably smaller
than it is on the SAT I). But the change of perspective over two generations--the
call for a more holistic approach--is also an ironic imputation of confidence in
the higher-education establishment. Trust us, Atkinson and the establishment seem
to be saying, to make the right decisions.

For selective public universities,
however, and for a lot of private institutions as well, holistic decisions aren't
all that easy. It takes great resources to read all those admissions folders and
fairly evaluate all the intangible stuff they contain--recommendations, essays,
personal background, professions of achievement in music or devotion to the
needy. And in public institutions particularly, it makes it difficult to justify
the decisions: to say that an admissions staff, in its holistic judgment, saw
more promise in candidate A than in candidate B, especially if they're from
different ethnic backgrounds, is likely to invite all sorts of questions and
pressures. If an institution has "objective" numbers, decisions are much easier
to defend. More important, for colleges not too sure of their own reputation, the
average SAT score of entering classes, like the "Ph.D." after professors' names,
remains an indispensable marketing tool--a symbol of academic respectability.

Atkinson's proposal is quite obviously an assertion of supreme confidence in UC's
reputation. But if the private rumbles from some of UC's chancellors are any
indication, that confidence may not be shared at some of the university's less
prestigious campuses. The SAT, in fact, may be far more important for
institutions that can't afford to be as choosy as Berkeley or UCLA--or, for that
matter, Harvard or Amherst. Berkeley may be secure enough to abandon the SAT
without fear that it will be thought to be watering down standards, but many
other colleges, like, say, UC Riverside or UC Santa Cruz, may not be. And at a
time when many states (wrongly) use SAT scores as an indicator of school quality,
getting rid of the thing will be even harder.

Either way, however, Atkinson has
done more to fuel the controversy over what Nicholas Lemann called "The Big Test"
than anything that's occurred in years--and, in the long run, probably more to
foster the searching look that the test deserves. The fact that Atkinson's
proposal comes just as politicians (and many business people) are pushing for
still more high-stakes testing in our schools and colleges makes it even more
telling. "No one," he told me, "has been an honest broker on testing." With his
challenge, the biggest critic is not the liberals at FairTest, but a very
visible figure within the temple.

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