The 2001 Robert H. Atwell Distinguished
delivered at the 83rd Annual Meeting of the American Council on
Education Washington, D.C., February 18, 2001
Richard C. Atkinson, President,
University of California
is a distinct pleasure to present the Robert H. Atwell Distinguished
Lecture. I have known and admired Bob for many years. As president
of Pitzer College, as head of the American Council on Education,
and in many other roles as well, he has been an eloquent voice on
behalf of the nation's colleges and universities, and for that we
are all in his debt. I cannot think of a better way to recognize
his important contributions than by this annual lecture in his honor.
than any country in the world, the United States has sought to put
a college education within the reach of anyone with the talent and
determination to succeed. And we have tried to allocate educational
opportunity in ways that reflect American ideals of fairness and
egalitarianism. Many argue that the use of standardized tests in
admissions, and particularly the SAT, promotes those ideals by providing
a common measure of readiness for college-level study. I have reached
a very different conclusion, and that is what I want to talk about
I asked the Academic Senate of the University of California (UC)
to consider two major changes in our admissions policies. First,
I recommended that the University require only standardized tests
that assess mastery of specific subject areas rather than undefined
notions of "aptitude" or "intelligence." To
facilitate this change, I recommended that we no longer require
the SAT I for students applying to UC. This recommendation has significant
implications for the University of California since we are one of
the principal users of the SAT.
I recommended that all campuses move away from admission processes
that use narrowly defined quantitative formulas and instead adopt
procedures that look at applicants in a comprehensive, holistic
way. While this recommendation is intended to provide a fairer basis
on which to make admission decisions, it would also help ensure
that standardized tests do not have an undue influence but rather
are used to illuminate the student's total record.
the short term, these proposals will not result in earth-shaking
changes in determining which students are admitted and which are
rejected. In the long term, however, they will help strengthen high
school curricula and pedagogy, create a stronger connection between
what students accomplish in high school and their likelihood of
being admitted to UC, and focus student attention on mastery of
subject matter rather than test preparation. These changes will
help all students, especially low-income and minority students,
determine their own educational destinies. And they will lead to
greater public confidence in the fairness of the University of California's
these changes will complement K-12 reform efforts that have been
launched in California and around the nation to establish clear
curricular guidelines, set high academic standards, and employ standardized
tests to assess student achievement.
me describe how I came to make these recommendations. For many years,
I have worried about the use of the SAT but last year my concerns
coalesced. I visited an upscale private school and observed a class
of 12-year-old students studying verbal analogies in anticipation
of the SAT. I learned that they spend hours each monthdirectly
and indirectlypreparing for the SAT, studying long lists of
verbal analogies such as "untruthful is to mendaciousness"
as "circumspect is to caution." The time involved was
not aimed at developing the students' reading and writing abilities
but rather their test-taking skills. What I saw was disturbing,
and prompted me to spend time taking sample SAT tests and reviewing
the literature. I concluded what many others have concludedthat
America's overemphasis on the SAT is compromising our educational
on Standardized Tests
me make clear that I continue to be a strong supporter of standardized
tests. I have high regard for the Educational Testing Service (ETS),
which produces the SAT. Its staff knows how to develop and evaluate
tests, and has an excellent record of administering tests and ensuring
security. My concern is not with the ability of ETS to develop and
administer standardized tests, but with the appropriateness of the
SAT in college admissions.
properly and used responsibly, standardized tests can help students
gauge their progress and help the general public assess the effectiveness
of schools. The problem is not the use of standardized tests to
assess knowledge in well-defined subject areas. The problem is tests
that do not have a demonstrable relationship to the student's program
of studya problem that is amplified when the tests are assumed
to measure innate ability.
students spend a great deal of time preparing for the SAT. But students
are not the only ones affected. Nobody is sparednot teachers,
not parents, not admissions officers, not university presidents.
knowing that they will be judged by the scores their students make,
are under pressure to teach to the test. College admissions officers
are under pressure to increase the SAT scores of each entering class.
They know that their president, faculty, and alumni pay attention
to how SAT scores affect their standing in college rankings, like
those published by U.S. News & World Report. The stakes are
so high that nobody is surprised when the Wall Street Journal reports
that some universities manipulateand indeed falsifySAT
scores in an effort to attain a higher ranking.
how important the SAT is in the admissions game, some parents go
to great lengths to help their children get high scores. The Los
Angeles Times reported that a growing number of affluent parents
shop around for a psychologist willing to certify that their child
is learning disabled so he or she can qualify for extra time on
parents who can afford the fees enroll their children in SAT preparation
courses. Last year alone, an estimated 150,000 students paid over
$100 million for coaching provided by the Princeton Review, Stanley
Kaplan, and the like.
Given attempts of some individuals and institutions to gain any
advantage, fair or foul, is it any wonder that leaders of minority
communities perceive the SAT to be unfair? These concerns are often
dismissed as sour grapes, as special "ethnic pleading."
The response by defenders of the SAT is, "Don't shoot the messenger."
They argue that the lower performance of Blacks and Hispanics reflects
the fact that Blacks and Hispanics tend to be clustered in poor
schools, offering outdated curricula taught by ill-prepared teachers.
perceptions about fairness cannot be so easily dismissed. Of course,
minorities are concerned about the fact that, on average, their
children score lower than white and Asian American students. The
real basis of their concern, however, is that they have no way of
knowing what the SAT measures and, therefore, have no basis for
assessing its fairness or helping their children acquire the skills
to do better.
troubling of all, SAT scores can have a profound effect on how students
regard themselves. All of us have known students who excelled in
high school, students who did everything expected of them and more,
suddenly doubt their accomplishments, their abilities, and their
basic worth because they scored poorly on the SAT.
involved in education should be concerned about how overemphasis
on the SAT is distorting educational priorities and practices, how
the test is perceived by many as unfair, and how it can have a devastating
impact on the self-esteem and aspirations of young students.
while there is widespread agreement that overemphasis on the SAT
harms American education, there is no consensus on what to do or
where to start. In many ways, we are caught up in the educational
equivalent of a nuclear arms race. We know that this overemphasis
on test scores hurts all involved, especially students. But we also
know that anyone or any institution opting out of the competition
does so at considerable risk.
is long overdue. Accordingly, I am recommending that UC change its
test requirements in the admissions process.
of the SAT
me place my comments in perspective with some observations about
how the SAT has evolved over the years. Originally, the test was
developed to serve a distinctly American purpose. The College Board
first met in 1900 and held its first examinations in Spring 1901.
The goals of these exams were: (a) to move away from the existing
system, in which each university had its own examination (of unknown
validity, and if students wanted to apply to several universities,
they had to take one exam per university); (b) to provide feedback
to secondary schools about what should be covered in their curriculum
and the appropriate level of instruction (i.e., standards); and
(c) to widen the net of student applicants (at the time, prep schools
provided "certificates" for some students which served
as the entry hurdle for others). The initial tests of the College
Board were clearly achievement tests with no implication that they
measured "innate intelligence." They were intended to
serve an egalitarian purpose. They were designed to identify students
from a wide range of backgrounds who had demonstrated mastery of
academic subjects needed to succeed in college.
this changed in the 1930s. The then-president of Harvard University,
James Conant, wanted to make the SAT a test, not of achievement,
but of basic aptitude. His motivations were good. He wanted to reduce
the advantage that wealthy students enjoyed by virtue of having
attended schools with a rich curriculum and excellent teachers.
However well intentioned, this change brought with it a sense that
the SAT was akin to an IQ testa measure of innate intelligence.
College Board has since made attempts to change this perception.
In 1990, it changed the name of the SAT from "Scholastic Aptitude
Test" to "Scholastic Assessment Test." And in 1996,
it dropped the name altogether and said that the "SAT"
was the "SAT" and that the initials no longer stood for
anything. Rather than resolving the problem, this rhetorical sleight-of-hand
served to underscore the mystery of what the SAT is supposed to
universities, faced with the problem of having to choose from among
thousands of highly qualified applicants, have adopted practices
that give too much weight to the SAT. College presidents and others
have candidly acknowledged that, while they appreciate the limitations
of the test, they continue to rely on SAT scores because they provide
a convenient basis for justifying admission decisions.
too often, universities use SAT scores to rank order applicants
in determining who should be admitted. This use of the SAT is not
compatible with the American view on how merit should be defined
and opportunities distributed. The strength of American society
has been its belief that actual achievement should be what matters
most. Students should be judged on the basis of what they have made
of the opportunities available to them. In other words, in America,
students should be judged on what they have accomplished during
four years of high school, taking into account their opportunities.
University of California requires that high school students take
a set of college-preparatory coursesranging from English,
social sciences, and foreign languages to mathematics and a laboratory
science. Those required courses shape the high school curriculum
in direct and powerful ways. Under the California Master Plan for
Higher Education, students who compile an academic record placing
them among the top 12½ percent statewide of high school seniors
are guaranteed a space at one of the UC campuses.
draws its students from over 1,000 comprehensive public and private
high schools around the state. These schools vary widely in terms
of the quality of faculty and curriculum. As elsewhere in the nation,
low-income and minority students tend to be concentrated in poorer
schools, with a limited curriculum taught by a large percentage
of under-prepared teachers.
has a particularly difficult responsibility to fulfill. As the public
institution entrusted by the state to educate its top high school
graduates, it must set high standards. At the same time, UC must
set standards that are attainable by individual students attending
any of the state's comprehensive high schools. UC must also be mindful
that it serves the most racially and ethnically diverse college-going
population in the nation. The University must be careful to make
sure that its standards do not unfairly discriminate against any
campuses have historically balanced these imperatives by giving
the most weight to high school grades in the college preparatory
courses required for UC admission. In this way, campuses attempt
to strike a balance between meritocratic and egalitarian values.
The criteria are meritocratic in that they emphasize grades earned
in demanding courses. The criteria are egalitarian in that, in theory,
they can be met by any student attending any high school in the
state. However, because grading standards vary from high school
to high school, we need some form of standardized testing and have
in the past turned to the SAT.
faced with large numbers of students applying for relatively few
spots, admissions officers, unless they are very careful, will give
undue weight to the SAT. All UC campuses have tried to ensure that
SAT scores are used properly in the admissions process. However,
because California's college-age population will grow by 50 percent
over the next decade and become even more diverse than it is today,
additional steps must be taken now to ensure that test scores are
kept in proper perspective.
have recommended that the faculty adopt the following criteria when
setting requirements for standardized tests.
academic competencies to be tested should be clearly defined.
There should be a demonstrable relationship between what is tested
and what the student studied in high school. In other words, testing
should be directly related to the required college preparatory
from any comprehensive high school in California should be able
to score well if they mastered the curriculum.
should be able to review their score and understand where they
did well or fell short and what they must do to earn higher scores
in the future.
scores should help admissions officers evaluate the applicant's
readiness for college-level work.
me now turn to specific recommendations. Henceforth, I will no longer
refer to the SAT in general, but to the SAT I and the SAT II, and
will assume that you are familiar with these two tests (The SAT
IIs are individual tests designed to measure knowledge in specific
subject areas. The SAT I, in contrast, focuses on verbal and mathematical
abilities that are used to help predict first-year college grades.)
Based on the criteria listed above, I have proposed that the faculty
adopt the following changes in the admissions process.
longer require that students take the SAT I in order to apply
for admission to the University.
for the development of standardized tests that are directly tied
to the college preparatory courses required of students applying
these tests are available, continue to require the SAT II. Under
current UC admissions policy, applicants are required to take
three SAT II subject tests, namely, writing, mathematics, and
a third test of their choice.
policies and guidelines governing the use of standardized tests.
In particular, make sure that tests are not overvalued, but rather
used to illuminate other aspects of a student's record.
SAT II begins to approximate what I judge to be an appropriate test
for the University's admissions process. It tests students on specific
subjects that are well defined and readily described. Of course,
it is not coordinated with UC- required college preparatory courses,
but at least students and their families know what to expect.
some years, UC has required both the SAT I and the SAT II. Because
UC enrolls a large number of students and has required tests for
many years, we have the data necessary to make judgments about the
value of different tests in our admissions process. We know that
high school grades are by far the best predictor of first-year college
performance. We have also found that the SAT II is a better predictor
of performance than the SAT I. Further, the SAT II augmented by
the SAT I is only slightly better than the SAT II alone in predicting
standardized test requirements is a step in the right direction,
but in the best of circumstances there will be a tendency to overemphasize
test scores. Admissions officers at UC campuses recognize this problem
and have introduced more holistic, more comprehensive evaluation
processes. Included in the comprehensive evaluation is the quality
of the high school and the environment in which the student was
raised. A student who has made exceptional progress in troubled
circumstances needs to be given special attention.
more holistic procedures have been well received by the public.
Students report that they appreciate review processes that look
at the full range of their accomplishments within the context of
the opportunities they enjoyed and the obstacles they faced.
proposed changes in UC's admissions process will come at some cost.
They are labor-intensive and therefore expensive. However, considering
the importance of admissions decisions to individual students and
to society at large, we have no choice but to invest the necessary
the Academic Senate responds favorably to these recommendations,
then UC would reaffirm its commitment to assessing achievement in
ways appropriate to the 21st centurya commitment to assess
students in their full complexity. Such decisions are difficult
because they involve making sense of grades earned in different
courses taught at very different schools. They require that judgments
be made about the opportunities available to individual students.
They call on admissions officers to look into the future and make
judgments about what individual applicants might contribute to campus
life and, later, to society. These are extraordinarily tough decisions
that require both wisdom and humility. But the stakes are too high
not to ensure that the job is done right.