November 28, 2001
Blaming the Messenger
E. D. Hirsch Jr.
PALO ALTO -- Critics of the SAT have chosen
the wrong target. Instead of attacking a fair and valid
achievement test, they should level their ire at our dismal public schools.
Opponents of the SAT say we don’t know what it measures and hint darkly
that it smacks of discredited IQ testing. Decades ago, the distinguished
psychometrician John Carroll stated, correctly, that the verbal SAT is
an "advanced vocabulary test."
At a lower level so are other standardized tests in common use, such as
the verbal portions of the Stanford 9, the ITBS, the CTBS, and, most significant
of all, the well-studied AFQT, taken by those who enter military service.
The verbal portions of these tests are highly correlated with one another
and with real-world competencies in the armed forces, in college, and
in the workplace.
Critics of the SAT concede that it was devised to ensure fairness in admission
to elite colleges but argue that it has become unfair to able students
who do not perform well on fill-in-the-bubble tests, to those who belong
to ethnic groups and so are on uneasy terms with the cultural assumptions
of the verbal SAT, and to those whose parents are not rich enough to pay
for the expensive SAT courses that claim to raise scores.
The result has been ethnically and racially unrepresentative admission
to top universities. These sins against equity are compounded by sins
against proper educational goals. Instead of prodding students to think
about the civil rights movement or Shakespeare’s plays, schools now run
cram courses to improve performance on standardized tests.
Critics of the SAT have chosen the wrong target. The right target is K–12
public education. These are reasonable criticisms, but they are accompanied
by vague recommendations for better tests that can disclose deeper skills
than those measured by the verbal SAT or for tests that are based on the
school curriculum. Yet no test of "alternative" skills has proved to be
fair and valid.
The idea of using tests based on the school curriculum is more promising,
but so far no statewide curriculum is specific enough to permit curriculum-based
tests that are fair. Until fair and valid curriculum-based tests are developed,
it is irresponsible to abandon a test like the SAT that is fair and valid.
I sympathize with the social motives behind the misguided attempts to
do away with the SAT.
I too want able disadvantaged students to have the opportunity to attend
top colleges. But SAT critics have chosen the wrong target. The right
target is K–12 public education. The most promising alternatives to the
SAT—curriculum-based tests—are themselves ultimately means for improving
scores on the SAT by improving the underlying vocabulary knowledge that
the SAT measures. Statewide curriculum-based tests recently introduced
in Virginia have already produced a rise in SAT-style verbal tests.
Until fair and valid alternatives are developed, it is irresponsible to
abandon a test like the SAT, which is fair and valid. So I agree that
curriculum-based tests offer the most promising way for schools to overcome
inequities created by class and caste. But the virtues of curriculum-based
tests in no way invalidate the verbal SAT or similar tests, which are
currently the only good instruments to calibrate the accuracy of curriculum-based
tests that are offered as alternatives.
If school-based tests do not produce rises in the verbal SAT, then something
is wrong with the tests and the schools. Blaming the SAT is a short-sighted
way of taking the heat off the public schools to provide genuine equality
of educational opportunity.
[Editor's Note: E. D. Hirsch Jr. is a professor
of education and humanities, University of Virginia; distinguished visiting
fellow, Hoover Institution; and member, Hoover’s Koret Task Force on K–12
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