Reflections on 100 years of testing, classroom grades in April 15 talk in San Diego

Although more than three million high school seniors take standardized college admissions tests like the SAT “it is well known by educational researchers that high-school grades are the best indicator of student readiness for college, and standardized admissions tests are useful primarily as a supplement to the high-school record,” according to Richard C. Atkinson in a speech to be presented April 15, 2009 at the American Educational Research Association’s 90th annual meeting in San Diego.

“We now have a much deeper appreciation of why assessment of achievement and curriculum mastery remains vital as a paradigm for admissions testing. Curriculum-based achievement tests are the fairest and most effective assessments for college admissions and have important incentive or “signaling ” effects for our K-12 schools as well: They help reinforce a rigorous academic curriculum and create better alignment of teaching, learning and assessment all along the pathway from high school to college,” according to Atkinson.

The College Board’s SAT admissions test sends a confusing message to students, teachers, and schools. It featured esoteric items, like verbal analogies and quantitative comparisons, rarely encountered in the classroom. Especially troubling, the perception of the SAT as a test of basic intellectual ability had an adverse effect on many students from low-performing schools, tending to diminish academic aspiration and self-esteem. Low scores on the SAT were too often interpreted as meaning that a student lacked the ability to attend UC, notwithstanding his or her record of accomplishment in high school.

These concerns prompted Atkinson to propose in 2001 dropping the SAT in favor of curriculum-based achievement tests in UC admissions. UC accounts for a substantial share of the national market for admissions tests, and the College Board responded with a revised SAT in 2005. The “New SAT” (now also known as the “SAT-R,” for “reasoning”) “is clearly an improvement over the previous version of the test. A writing exam has been incorporated into the test, and verbal analogies have been dropped. Instead of deconstructing esoteric analogies, students must now perform a task they will actually face in college — writing an essay under a deadline. The new mathematics section is more demanding, but fairer; while the old SAT featured item-types that were known for their trickery but required only a basic knowledge of algebra, the new math section is more straightforward and covers some higher-level math. “Reports from many sources indicate that the changes have galvanized a renewed focus on writing and math in the nation’s schools,” said Atkinson.

Though an improvement over the old test, the New SAT still remains at odds with educational priorities along the pathway from high school to college. The New SAT’s lack of alignment with high-school curricula has become especially conspicuous now that most states, like California, have moved towards standards-based assessments at the K-12 level.

Of all nationally administered tests used in college admissions, the College Board’s subject tests and AP exams are the best examples of achievement tests currently available. The College Board subject tests are offered in about 20 subject areas and the AP exams in over 30. AP exam scores were second only to high-school grades in predicting student performance at UC.

In conclusion Atkinson says, “Without question, the College Board SAT subject tests and AP exams have the strongest curricular foundations of any college-entrance tests now available, and more colleges and universities should find them attractive.”

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