Los Angeles – The University of California Board of Regents met at UC Los Angeles on Wednesday to discuss changes in admissions policy intended to better prepare and evaluate students for college.
UC President Richard Atkinson recommended in February 2001 that the UC, whose applicants form the largest pool of SAT takers in the country, stop using the standardized test as grounds for admission. Since then, the College Board and ACT Inc. have scrambled to produce tests more in line with Atkinson’s and the University’s vision.
The SAT has not changed since 1994; the regents’ discussion Wednesday focused on improving the reliability and effectiveness of standardized testing mandated by current UC policy. Representatives from ACT Inc. and the College Board presented modifications to their admissions tests aimed at better indicating a student’s preparedness and motivating high schools to teach a wide-ranging curriculum that is consistent with the tests.
“With ACT, we can take any individual student and translate their score into ‘This is what this student can do,'” ACT President Dick Ferguson said. “This is important to colleges but it’s even more important to the high schools and middle schools who are preparing these students.”
Both companies and the UC Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (B.O.A.R.S.) heavily emphasized the inclusion of an essay segment to the examinations. College Board Vice-President James Montoya stressed the importance of national consistency in implementing the writing section.
“There is a very high correlation between how well students write and their success in college. Statistically, writing is the best predictor,” he said. “By maintaining the SAT’s consistency from state to state, we can bring that into our evaluation regardless of the school the student is applying to.”
Ferguson presented a different approach to writing for the ACT, suggesting that students who take the test in California be required to respond to an essay prompt that would be scored separately from the rest of the test.
Regent Sherry Lansing expressed concern about the evaluation criteria of a new writing segment, and said scoring that is based on anything beyond basic grammar and sentence structure would inherently be subjective.
“Once you eliminate grammar, writing is a very creative skill and I’m concerned that it will be evaluated very subjectively,” she said. “Some of our greatest poets and writers were criticized before their time. I bet if we passed a single essay around this panel, each one of us would rate it differently.”
Montoya agreed that a completely objective essay test is impractical, but said using a scoring rubric with specific points of evaluation would ensure maximum objectivity.
“The topics would be general,” he said. “They’ll be something like ‘Write about someone who had a significant impact on your life:’ something every student can write about.”
State Superintendent Delaine Eastin supported Montoya’s argument and added that life more closely resembles subjectivity. The essay prompt would pressure high schools to emphasize writing more than they did in the past, she said.
“This influences K through 12 to focus on skills that are hard to focus on,” she said. “If you have to grade 200 papers, it’s easy to downplay writing. This university must send the message to high schools that knowing just how to read is not enough. You must also know how to write.”
Montoya and Ferguson both said the examinations are constantly developing and test designers assured the regents that research on reducing the impact of test preparation programs, the influence of time limits, the cost to students, and the impact of bias was a very high priority.
The SAT covers two years of high school math, and critical reading, sentence completion and analogies in its verbal section. The new examination would include three years of high school math, eliminate analogies and add an essay score. Very few changes would be made to the ACT other than a new essay segment for students applying to California schools.
The companies and B.O.A.R.S. agreed that breaking down test scores to show a student’s strengths and weaknesses is a critical component of standardized testing and should not be downplayed.
The ACT currently provides detailed diagnostic information to students, parents, and their teachers. The College Board’s current PSAT and the new SAT provide similar information.
“Most other programs give students the same information with the same cumulative score,” Montoya said, “instead of breaking it down and gearing to their pattern of responses to address areas of weakness.”
After discussing math and writing for approximately two hours, Regent David Lee asked about testing for scientific knowledge and preparedness. The topic lasted for approximately five minutes.