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SAT Subject Tests Face New Scrutiny

The University of California has a history of setting off changes in the standardized testing industry. Complaints from California, for example, led to the creation of the SAT’s writing test. Now, a universitywide faculty panel is pushing for another major change: dropping the requirement that all applicants for undergraduate admission submit two scores on SAT subject tests.

While the proposal would maintain the requirement that applicants submit either SAT or ACT scores, the elimination of the SAT subject tests (once known as achievement tests) would represent a significant erosion in institutions with such requirements. The College Board says that about 160 colleges — generally among the most elite — require or recommend at least one SAT subject, but the number of institutions with requirements is a minority within that group. So the departure of the University of California’s nine undergraduate campuses, with their 121,000 applicants, would be a major blow to the program.

Also potentially a blow: the conclusion of University of California professors that the subject tests add very little information of value to admissions officers, making the tests not worth applicants’ or universities’ time.

While the University of California is highly influential on admissions standards, the institution is not speedy on these issues. The idea of abandoning the SAT subject tests has already been under consideration for several years, and the concept is far from being approved. But in a key milestone — noted by the Los Angeles Times Sunday — the Academic Senate of the system has sent the proposal to all campus faculty groups to review. After their comments come back, votes by two Senate bodies would be required to eventually send the idea to the university’s president and board. Senate leaders said, however, that the board has generally been supportive of faculty groups taking the lead on questions of admissions testing.

The College Board offers 20 SAT subject tests, broken into five categories: English, history and social studies, mathematics, science and languages. The tests are each one hour and consist of multiple choice questions.

Michael Brown, chair of the Academic Senate and a professor of counseling and clinical psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said that the important finding of the faculty review of the subject tests wasn’t that they didn’t test anything of value. The problem is that when examined on top of grades in a high-school preparatory curriculum and the basic SAT or ACT, there is “very little” more that is gained by having the additional testing on top of other admissions requirements.

“They aren’t getting that much out of it, and they are not getting information that they can’t get in other ways,” he said.

A detailed faculty report on the idea of abandoning the subject tests also notes that many students — especially low-income and/or minority students — become ineligible to apply because they do not take the subject matter tests. While students from top high schools are steered to prepare for and take the exams, that doesn’t happen elsewhere. So the testing requirement was found by the faculty panel to add next to nothing of value while diminishing the pool of low-income and minority students.

Brown said that as the idea has been discussed among various faculty groups, there was some concern from engineering professors that admissions offices might lack necessary information about applicants for their programs. Brown said that before making the most recent recommendation, the professors studying the issue ran testing models to identify the predictive value gained for engineering applicants, and while it found slightly more value than for other students, the value was still extremely small. In addition, Brown noted that the proposal going forward gives departments or programs the right to recommend specific tests from the SAT subject portfolio. Generally, Brown said, when programs make such recommendations, applicants follow them, and this might create the possibility for the test being used in a far more limited way.

The California faculty panel also noted that reliance on the SAT subject tests has become much more common among private than public institutions. Harvard, Yale and Princeton Universities all require SAT subject tests. But some of the most elite of public universities — such as the University of Michigan and the University of Texas at Austin — do not require the tests. While Michigan will look at scores if applicants volunteer them, Texas will set aside the scores, and reviews them only for possible use in placement of admitted students.

Edna Johnson, a spokeswoman for the College Board, took strong exception to the idea that the subject tests are expendable or limit the diversity of applicants. She called the tests “a fair, unbiased measure” of knowledge of specific subjects. Both students and colleges gain by having this information, Johnson said.

If the University of California has “a broader swath of tests,” it can see “a fuller picture — more information — which is clearly more advantageous to all students,” she said. Eliminating the requirement would lead admissions offices to have “more subjectivity and less tangible academic data.” As for minority students, she said that some do better on the primary SAT and some do better on the subject tests, so minority students benefit from having all of the tests required.

Robert Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a leading critic of the College Board and standardized testing, said that the strong opposition from the College Board to the California proposal is predictable. Schaeffer cited the College Board’s own data to show that 36 percent of all SAT subject tests are administered in California, making him think the board will start a “pull out all the stops” campaign to “block this proposal.”

Fees from the test are significant, Schaeffer said. According to the College Board’s fee schedule, it costs $20 to register to take an SAT subject test, an additional $8 for other subject tests, and an additional $20 for the special “listening” portion of some of the foreign language tests, in which the multiple choice questions relate to passages that are recorded for test-takers. Students applying to many colleges may also face additional fees for having their scores reported.

“If UC were to drop subject tests, barely six dozen campuses in the country would require them,” said Schaeffer. “The potential domino effect of more schools eliminating that testing requirement could cost the College Board tens of millions.”

As to the substance of the proposal in California, Schaeffer said that the faculty committee has produced considerable evidence that the requirement is limiting diversity without adding information that admissions officers need. He said that all testing on which wealthy applicants hire coaching companies favors wealthier students over others, so any reduction in the number of tests required promotes equity. If the university system follows through, he predicted it would see an increase in minority and low-income applicants who would no longer face an “unnecessary hurdle.”

Scott Jaschik 

The original story and user comments can be viewed online at http://insidehighered.com/news/2008/03/17/uc.