The SAT Revolution
The new test spells the end of IQ--and big changes for American education
In a cramped basement classroom in Berkeley, Calif., Kim Nunlist is unraveling the mysteries of the SAT. Nunlist, a 22-year-old undergrad with a serious tattoo and a score of 1470, waves the College Board's book of tips and practice tests in front of her class. Rip out the first 275 pages that explain how to answer SAT questions, she commands. "This is by the people who own the test; they do not want you to score well," she tells the class. "Do not pay attention to what they say. Pay attention to what I say."
Near the front of the room, Eryn Leavens stares intensely at a Princeton Review study guide. A high school senior, Leavens is determined to succeed on the standardized tests she despises. Nunlist asks her the answer to a sentence-completion item, in which she was asked to choose words to fill the blanks in a sentence. "Although on the surface the final draft appeared to _____ the first draft, upon close inspection it was _____ that major changes had been made." Leavens hesitates, then answers. "I picked C, but it didn't sound right." Nunlist agrees that the answer--"reproduce" and "apparent"--sounds weird, but it is correct. "They give you bad words for that reason," she says. "You have to pick the best answer. The best answer often stinks."
Nunlist has no illusions that what takes place in her classes can be called education. "It is bunk," she says. "I teach how to take a multiple-choice test." And what she teaches, she adds, is "completely inapplicable to the rest of life."
This is just what Carl Brigham feared. When Brigham, a psychologist, created the Scholastic Aptitude Test in 1926, he was a firm believer in intelligence testing. With IQ tests, he thought, he would be able to predict applicants' college grades, thereby selecting the students who would benefit most from higher education. But as his thinking evolved, Brigham began to worry that his test would lead teachers to focus on "linguistic skills" rather than literature and "disintegrated bits" of computation instead of mathematical concepts. His concerns went unheeded, and in the decades that followed the SAT only grew in power, becoming the pre-eminent gatekeeper for American higher education--as well as the stuff of sleepless nights for many a high schooler.
Now the era of intelligence testing is about to end. Thanks to an unprecedented assault from the head of the University of California system, the College Board (the nonprofit organization that owns the SAT) has begun its biggest overhaul ever of the test. The 340,000 students who took the SAT last weekend saw the same old kinds of questions. But by 2005 the board plans to strip out the analogies section, ask questions based on more-advanced math, and add a grammar and essay-writing test. "In many respects," says Ida Lawrence, the SAT program director, "it is a revolution."
Although the College Board's announcement in July was front-page news, the significance of the changes has remained largely unexamined. The inside story of the battle that began in California reveals just how great a philosophical shift the College Board has embraced. Rather than assess raw intelligence, the new SAT is intended to measure academic preparedness. "In its original form it was an IQ test," says Gaston Caperton, the College Board president. "What we have done is take the SAT and make it into something that tests reasoning and developed skill."