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A New President and an Economic Crisis

The Debate over Admissions


Research and Economic Growth

New Directions for Outreach

Tidal Wave II and New Approaches to Admission

Achievement versus Aptitude


The University Past and Present

University of California Campuses

Presidents of the University of California

Chief Campus Officers and Chancellors of the University of California


Chapter 38: Achievement versus Aptitude

In February 2001, during his keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Council on Education, President Atkinson announced that he had asked the Academic Senate of the University of California to consider eliminating the SAT I aptitude test as a requirement for admission to UC. The overemphasis on the sat and test scores, he went on to say, had created "the educational equivalent of a nuclear arms race" in which "anyone or any institution opting out of the competition does so at considerable risk."29

His announcement that the nation's largest user of the sat might abandon the test had an immediate and electrifying impact on American higher education. A virtual rite of passage in the United States, the SAT is required for admission to most of the country's elite universities, and about two million high school students take it every year.

Some were quick to speculate that President Atkinson's motivation was to make it easier for underrepresented minority students to qualify for the University, since Latinos, African Americans, and Native Americans tended to do less well on the sat than did whites and Asians. In reality, his reasons had far more to do with his skepticism about the soundness of any test that purported to measure innate mental abilities. As a cognitive scientist, he had long doubted the efficacy of such tests and had stated his reservations publicly on a number of occasions.

A democratic society, he argued, should judge students on what they had actually accomplished, not on "ill-defined notions of aptitude." He proposed that the University should instead employ achievement tests, tied to the college-preparatory curriculum, that measured the knowledge students had acquired during their schooling. Achievement tests, he asserted, are fairer to students, less vulnerable to charges of cultural or socioeconomic bias, and more appropriate for students and schools because they clarify what is important for students to learn.

In June 2002 the College Board, sponsor of the SAT, announced that beginning in 2005 it would align the test to the college-preparatory curriculum, adding a written essay and a more rigorous mathematics section to the seventy-six-year-old SAT. Atkinson welcomed the decision and praised the College Board for having "laid the foundation for a new test that will better serve our students and schools."


29. Richard C. Atkinson, "Standardized Tests and Access to American Universities," 2001 Robert H. Atwell Distinguished Lecture, 83rd Annual Meeting, American Council on Education, Washington, D.C., February 18, 2001.





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