Experts Contest Whether SAT I Is Racially Biased

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In recent years, the makers of the SAT have had to defend their test against opponents who claim it is racially biased or useless, but they have never faced as formidable an opponent as the president of the UC system.

UC President Richard Atkinson's announcement last week that the university should do away with the SAT I exam has prompted heated debate over the embattled admissions test, which is still used by 90 percent of the nation's colleges.

"The SAT is a white preference test and everybody kind of knows it," said Jay Rosner, executive director of the Princeton Review Foundation.

After extensive research, Rosner said he has reached the conclusion that test makers do not select "black preference questions" to appear on the test.

He said he reviewed all 580 questions from the 1988 and 1989 SAT I tests and found that the percentage of white students who answered correctly was higher for 474 of the questions. These he called the "white preference" questions.

He found the percentage of blacks who answered correctly was higher than whites on only one question, and that the percentages were the same for five others.

He acknowledged that the scoring gaps can be attributed to a number of factors, including differences in education and wealth. He argues, however, that his explanation of a white preference "explains a big chunk of the score gap."

Rosner said he was able to reduce the overall SAT I score gap by 40 percent when he created a test from questions with the smallest racial gap.

"That should appall anyone who thinks the tests are fair or reasonable," he said.

The College Board, which administrates the SAT, ardently defends the test against allegations that it is biased against minority groups.

"The College Board has long maintained that the SAT is not biased against any ethnic group," said Jeffrey Penn, a College Board spokesperson. "We take extra pain to make sure the test itself does not have an internal bias. It is our contention that those gaps are related to inequality in education, not a bias in the test."

Penn said the College Board has a rigorous method for adding questions to the test, including a review by a diverse group of teachers. He said they also test the questions in a non-scoring part of exams before adding them to the test officially.

"If we see an odd performance for any specific question, we try to revise it or we drop it," he said.

Rebecca Zwick, an education professor at UC Santa Barbara, said she does not see a bias in the test.

"I think the main reasons for the disparity in test scores is due to inequities in educational opportunity, not a problem with the test," she said.

The purpose of the test is to predict first-year college grades for students, and it does that well, she said.

"It has been very well demonstrated that it does contribute to the prediction of college grades," Zwick said. "I certainly think for large schools it is helpful as a screening device."

One UC Berkeley professor disagrees on the validity of the SAT I exam to predict students' future performance.

"There is no good evidence that SATs predict performance in college," said Richard Walker, a UC Berkeley geography professor. "I think it would just be salutary to get rid of the idea that there is a native intelligence that the exam tests instead of what people learn, which is why we send people to school in the first place."

Another conflicting study, however, claims the SAT actually predicts minorities will do better in their first year at college than they actually do, while it underestimates how white students will perform.

"Everyone expects that it would come out the other way, but consistently it doesn't," said Robert Linn, an education professor at the University of Colorado.

While he said the SAT is "surprisingly successful" at measuring first- year college grades, he added that Atkinson's move was "a step in the right direction."

William Sedlacek, an education professor and director for testing at the University of Maryland, said, however, the scope of the SAT I is too narrow. He said the test only helps predict grades for white, upper-middle class, heterosexual males.

"The SAT never works well for non-traditional applicants-minorities and gay (students)," Sedlacek said.

Instead of eliminating the SAT I or replacing it with another standardized test, he suggested augmenting it by looking at "a wider range of attributes."

A questionnaire he devised asks applicants about their view of themselves, whether they have long-term goals, if they've been in a leadership position and if the applicants have supportive people to turn to for help. These qualities would be more telling of a person's ability to succeed in college, Sedlacek said.

"If you use this system, you will get in a bunch of different people without focussing directly on race and ethnicity," he said.


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