Aptitude testing for college admissions falls out of favour in US

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 April, 2014, 10:11am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 April, 2014, 10:11am

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 organisation 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 maths 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 this month. "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.

A former ACT executive, Schmeiser came to the College Board last year. Her arrival was seen as a further sign of the organisation'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 mathematics.

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."

Washington Post