Sunday, November 16, 2008

The End of the SAT exam?

Wake Forest (North Carolina) is a highly ranked, highly selective university. Earlier this year, the institution took a bold step by no longer requiring the SAT as part of its admissions process. The University believes that the SAT is a “weak measure of academic ability” and that it “misevaluates [their] students’ academic strengths” as well as undercuts their diversity and talent pools.

Sisterdoc remembers all too well her introduction to standardized tests. While in elementary school, I was evaluated for the Pittsburgh Public School’s gifted students program. I recall one of the warm-up questions, “your mother goes to the store to purchase bananas, what color are the bananas that she brings home?” My answer: green. Some of my friends answered “brown.” The correct answer was yellow. [I knew almost immediately things weren’t going to go well for me]. An actual exam question asked, “you are watching television, but you cannot hear it clearly. You want to make the broadcast louder. What is the name of the button you use to make the broadcast louder?” My answer: sound. One of my friends answered: “we don’t have a TV.” Another friend said, “up.” Correct answer: volume (up).

When my parents shopped, they needed to make sure groceries lasted. They purchased green bananas to provide us access to inexpensive, but fresh fruit for a longer period of time. On the other hand, my friend’s folks purchased bananas off the “day old” (or older) clearance table. Theirs was a similar mission—access to a healthy, inexpensive, albeit less fresh snack. This isn’t just a Black thing; rather, it reveals a cultural bias in the exams based on class status. The same goes for the TV question. Our TV, such as it was, was so tiny it didn’t have room for a bunch of labels. VHS, UHF, a knob marked sound was about all we got. Common sense told us to turn the knob to the left to turn the sound down, or to the right to turn it up. I wasn’t accepted to the gifted program.

In California, a recent SAT study revealed that high SAT scores correlate with family income, but not necessarily with good grades. That means the test may speak to rich peoples’ experiences, but may not be a good predictor of their intellectual chops. If I am rich, I stand a better chance of getting a question right that asks me about my motor boat simply because I have one versus a kid who only knows the shoe leather express.

To be sure, if the contours of my life had continued to rise and fall on my performance on such tests, there would be no Sisterdoc. I’ve written books, articles, and book chapters. I am a professor at a pretty impressive university. Even today my creative energy is fueled by bananas that are more green than yellow.

I also bring racial and class diversity to the ivory-tower. Policy-makers are often White (or non-Black) and upper-middle class, but make decisions about Blacks and the lower-class. People like me are needed to give policy-makers a reality check, as well as to create policy for a populace they know best.

What do you think about Wake Forest’s decision to get rid of the SAT requirement?


Tyler Goetz said...

You are absolutely right about standardized tests, and it applies to other academic situations too. I was helping an elementary school student with a vocabulary lesson once -- she was an immigrant from somewhere in the Middle East -- and there were a lot of questions like "How would you feel if X happened to you? Pick A, B, C or D." She kept saying "Well, I would feel THIS way, but I think most other kids would feel THAT way." The questions depended not just on vocabulary, but also on the cultural context that makes a child react certain ways to certain things. There were also questions in the lesson that a child who grew up in the country could answer easily, but a child who grew up in the city probably couldn't. (Apparently knowing about farm animals is supposed to be universal, but knowing about, say, subway schedules is not.)

Sisterdoc said...

Tyler: Thank you for your thoughtful response! I wonder, though, what measures should institutions adopt to gauge the quality, potential, and fit of students? Your thoughts?