Death to the SAT

The SAT got him into Harvard from a small Iowa town. But now, CHARLES MURRAY wants to abolish the test. It's unnecessary and, worse, a negative force in American life.

the SAT is more than a test. It is one of life's landmarks. Waiting for the scores-one for verbal, one for math, and now one for writing, with a possible 800 on each-is painfully suspenseful. The exact scores are commonly remembered forever after.

So it has been for half a century. But events of recent years have challenged the SAT's position. In 2001, Richard Atkinson, president of the University of California, proposed dropping the SAT as a requirement for admission. More and more prestigious small colleges, such as Middlebury and Bennington, are making the SAT optional. The charge that the SAT is slanted in favor of privileged children-"a wealth test," as Harvard law professor Lani Guinier calls it-has been ubiquitous. I have watched the attacks on the SAT with dismay. Back in 1961, the test helped get me into Harvard from a small Iowa town by giving me a way to show that I could compete with applicants from Exeter and Andover. Ever since, I have seen the SAT as the friend of the little guy, just as James Bryant Conant, president of Harvard, said it would be when he urged the SAT upon the nation in the 1940s.

Conant's cause was as unambiguously liberal in the 1940s as income redistribution is today. Then, America's elite colleges drew most of their students from a small set of elite secondary schools, concentrated in the northeastern United States, to which America's wealthy sent their children. The mission of the SAT was to identify intellectual talent regardless of race, color, creed, money, or geography, and give that talent a chance to blossom. Students from small towns and from poor neighborhoods in big cities were supposed to benefit-as I thought I did, and as many readers of the american think they did.

But data trump gratitude. The evidence has become overwhelming that the SAT no longer serves a democratizing purpose. Worse, events have conspired to make the SAT a negative force in American life. And so I find myself arguing that the SAT should be ended. Not just deemphasized, but no longer administered. Nothing important would be lost by so doing. Much would be gained.

To clarify my terms: Here, "SAT" will always refer to the verbal and mathematics tests that you have in mind when you recall your own SAT scores. They, along with the writing test added in 2005, are now officially known as "reasoning tests" or SAT I (labels I will ignore). The College Board also administers one-hour achievement tests in English literature, United States history, world history, biology, chemistry, physics, two levels of math, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latin, and Spanish. These are now called "subject tests" or SAT II (more labels I will ignore).

I do not discuss the College Board's advanced placement (AP) tests that can enable students to get college credit, because they cannot serve as a substitute for either the SAT or the achievement tests. Not all schools offer AP courses, and the AP's five-point scoring system conveys limited information.

Start with the proposition that nothing important would be lost by dropping the SAT. The surprising empirical reality is that the SAT is redundant if students are required to take achievement tests.

In theory, the SAT and the achievement tests measure different things. In the College Board's own words from its website, "The SAT measures students' verbal reasoning, critical reading, and skills," while the achievement tests "show colleges their mastery of specific subjects." In practice, SAT and achievement test scores are so highly correlated that SAT scores tell the admissions office little that it does not learn from the achievement test scores alone.

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