Achievement Versus Aptitude in College Admissions

RICHARD C. ATKINSON

Achievement Versus Aptitude in College Admissions

Students should be selected on the basis of their demonstrated success in learning, not some ill-defined notion of aptitude.

Every year, more than a million high school students stake their futures on the nation’s most widely used admissions test, the SAT I. Long viewed as the gold standard for ensuring student quality, the SAT I has also been considered a great equalizer in U.S. higher education. Unlike achievement tests such as the SAT II, which assess mastery of specific subjects, the SAT I is an aptitude test that focuses on measuring verbal and mathematical abilities independent of specific courses or high school curricula. It is therefore a valuable tool, the argument goes, for correcting the effects of grade inflation and the wildly varying quality of U.S. high schools. And it presumably offers a way of identifying talented students who otherwise might not meet traditional admissions criteria, especially high-potential students in low-performing high schools.

In February 2001, at the annual meeting of the American Council on Education (ACE), I delivered an address questioning the conventional wisdom about the SAT I and announced that I had asked the Academic Senate of the University of California (UC) to consider eliminating it as a requirement for admission to UC. I was unprepared for the intense public reaction to my remarks. The day before I was scheduled to deliver them, I went to the lobby of my hotel to get a copy of the Washington Post. I was astounded to find myself and excerpts from the speech on the front page; an early version had been leaked to the press. To my further astonishment, an even more detailed story appeared on the front page of the New York Times.