The educational system in the United States, with time, has undergone several upheavals. There are over 1000 colleges and Universities in the United States. These institutions of learning range from conventional degree colleges that offer Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctoral degrees. Others offer specific training geared towards a specific program. No matter what the level of a student intellect, training or career aspirations, there is a college that suits a student’s need. In the last decade, strides in our abilities to communicate have resulted in several universities offering distance learning. Institutions such as the University of Phoenix offer various affordable degrees where the student never has to walk into a campus classroom. (, 2003) Nearly one and a half million students take standardized college entrance examinations every year. This essay will explore the SATs.

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The previous paragraph mentions the upheavals in U.S. education. The debate is about the methods of evaluating a student’s performance. California has debated whether to abolish the grade system: some Universities and schools provide alternative grading schemes. (, 2003) The idea is that a system of grades emotionally hurts those that do not make good grades. The counter argument to this is that grades are not a measure of a student’s ability; good grades serve as motivators and incentives for improvement in performance. The same debate has now the arena of college entrance exams, especially the SATs. Two primary questions are raised: Is the SAT scores a measure of a student’s ability to succeed in college? Are some students getting an unfair advantage?

SAT: Inception and Background

James Bryant Conant, president of Harvard University, and Henry Chauncey, ETS, started the Scholastic Aptitude Test, now called Scholastic Assessment Test. It used the then-young science of intelligence testing to assess and sort American students “fairly and dispassionately.” (Lemann, 2000) It has undergone changes. The math test as of 1995 allowed students to use calculators. In 1999, it was reported that questions with alleged bias were purged, including math questions upon which the College Board found that some groups performed more poorly. From 2005, a new SAT exam with some changes is set to begin.

SAT and what it Measures

The SAT measures the ability of a student to intellectually — from language and mathematical points-of-view. The SAT has two sections. In the Verbal section, the student is examined in three areas: Sentence completions, Analogies and Critical Reading. The Math Section tests the students in basic mathematics: algebra, geometry and arithmetic. (, Sat I, 2003) In each section and subsection, the level of difficulty of the questions increases. In order to prevent random guessing, variable negative marking is also present. (, 2003) The SAT necessitates the use of certain strategies that are specific to each student. These strategies enable a student to assess his or her strengths and weaknesses thus maximizing the score. Some of the more elite institutions require that applicants also take the SAT IIs, which test a students aptitude in specific subjects. (, Sat II, 2003)

Argument Matrix


Is SAT the measure of a student’s ability to succeed?

Most university application officials and administrators will agree the answer is an unequivocal, No. Other factors like grade point average (GPA), letters of recommendation and overall nature of the application package. Important considerations are also answers to the essays, extracurricular and leadership activities, extramural research, student employment and social service. All these are an important and integral part of a student’s college application package. But the SATs are one definitive aspect because that is the only test by which a student is measured by his or peers across the nation. For many universities, a specific SAT score is an effective first filter. GPA is not a true indicator because different schools have different levels of rigor with different syllabi and different textbooks. Even within a school GPAs are not a true indicator because some students are enrolled in honors programs, and other students variably take Advanced Placement (AP) courses.

The College Board research has shown that though critics deem that some have an unfair advantage since the SATs are coachable, the average score gain is between 20-35 points based on pre-coaching diagnostics for commercial coaching establishments. The best way to prepare for the SAT is to be better prepared at high school studies. (Penn, 2002) lot of effort goes into creating the SATs. ETS avers that the SATs are designed to be fair. The tests are designed not to be sexist or racist. In recent years, any references that could be construed as hampering a students ability to answer the questions as best as he or she can, have been removed. SAT is also continually evolving. Every test contains an experimental section that is not scored. This section contains questions that might, some years down the road, become standard questions. (, 2002)


Is the SAT unfair?

The questions in the experimental section are disguised such that most people cannot identify it. SAT is conducted in English. A student might perform significantly better if he or she is well versed in English (especially contextual English) and possesses a larger vocabulary of English words. In this sense, SAT might pose a disadvantage to the students who come from non-English speaking homes, or for whom English is a second language.

Some have also criticized SAT for being unfair to those who can afford tutoring. Kaplan and Princeton Review are two of several institutions that offer SAT training. Kaplan, which is owned by the Washington Post, is the oldest and most well-known. SAT classroom instruction costs a student $1,000. Private tutoring costs a student more than $100 per hour. Kaplan instructs its SAT students in using certain strategies if they cannot get the answers using conventional methods. Besides the strategies, these “SAT companies” also regularly and periodically test their students in real life test situations. They also have regular homework and vast question banks of which their students can avail. These students do have an advantage because they are better prepared intellectually and mentally than students of the same ability but who cannot afford additional tutoring or help. Since African-Americans and Hispanic students are disproportionately, economically disadvantaged, they will not do as well in the SAT and hence may miss out on their preferred institutions. (Kay and Andrews, 2003) table from Crouse & Trusheim’s book The Case Against the SAT (reprinted below) indicates that SAT scores differentiate people not only by income but also by their parents’ role in the economic system. The average scores of the children of professionals are higher than the children of white-collar workers, which in turn, are higher than the children of blue-collar workers. High school rank, which is a better measure of academic achievement than SAT scores, shows no such correlation. (Crouse and Trusheim, 1988) (p. 126)

Future Directions

But is economic disparity a good reason to do away with SAT, altogether? Until a uniform system of examination is designed, the SAT will have to stay in place. Otherwise, the applications process will be chaotic. Colleges will have significant problems in efficiently deciding which students to offer admissions. Even critics of SATs cannot offer any viable alternatives that will not involve a complete overhaul of the U.S. education system. For students that wish to enter college from Fall 2006 and onwards, a new SAT will be in place. This SAT will do away with quantitative comparisons and grid-ins in the Math sections. An Algebra II section, however, will be added. Also added will be a comprehensive writing system that will test grammar and essay writing skills. SAT will be longer (three and a half hours instead of three). The writing component will add another 800 points in the test, taking the total from 1600 (currently) to 2400.

Rationale and Conclusion

The capitalist economy, culture and lifestyle of people in the United States is based on opportunities for those that work hard and use their abilities to the fullest. This countries history is replete with instances of those that have made it big from humble beginnings. Unless the United States wants to follow the system adopted by foreign countries, there will have to be a standardized test. SAT fits this bill. It tests students’ innate intellectual abilities without presupposing knowledge in any particular field. The medium of testing is English. That cannot be helped, because it is the language with which life the U.S. is conducted. Disbanding institutions like Kaplan will defy everything the United States stands for. It will also prove ineffectual because people who are motivated will obtain help. And yes, it is unfair that some might score additional points by seeking outside help. This should serve as a motivator to students, especially students who come from non-English speaking backgrounds. They can work hard and motivate themselves to constantly improve themselves. If nothing else, therein lie life’s major lessons.

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