The IQ tests hijacked by the middle class

An intelligence test for entry to Britain's universities has been proposed. But in America, where such tests are routinely used, there are fears that, far from being blind to race and social class, these tests put students on unequal ground
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The Independent Online

One proposal aimed at levelling the playing field for entry to Britain's universities is to introduce a scholastic aptitude test - a kind of super IQ test taken during the A-level years. It is designed to spot raw, rather than coached intelligence, and is routinely used in America. But does the SAT work? One 17-year-old American high school student, who agonised about the ethics of getting extra coaching for her tests, has her doubts.

One proposal aimed at levelling the playing field for entry to Britain's universities is to introduce a scholastic aptitude test - a kind of super IQ test taken during the A-level years. It is designed to spot raw, rather than coached intelligence, and is routinely used in America. But does the SAT work? One 17-year-old American high school student, who agonised about the ethics of getting extra coaching for her tests, has her doubts.

I understand that England is considering implementing a nationwide achievement test to help universities determine admissions eligibility. In America we have such a test, the Scholastic Aptitude Tests, or SATs. This is a three-hour standardised test that a student can take anywhere from one to three times. The test is solely multiple choice and measures verbal and math skills and abilities.

Over the course of my junior year in high school I learned that, as the deadline for college application creeps closer and closer, the SATs become more and more of a focus for students. Friends who are usually very laid back transform into obsessives; comparing verbal and math scores with everyone they can find, frantically hiring tutors and buying books that promise to improve their scores.

Admittedly, the SATs are very daunting. This single test, this three hours out of the thousands that you spend in high school, plays an unbelievably large role in determining what your options are for college. If your scores are too low, there are schools that will not even consider you. If they are high enough you will be offered scholarships and have the chance to attend a prestigious school.

With so much riding on the SATs, one would hope that they would live up to their original goal of being a test that measures academic skills and is blind to race and social class. However, this is not the case. The fact is, some people test exceptionally well and some test poorly. This puts otherwise equally able students on unequal ground from the beginning.

The SATs are meant to test students only on their verbal and mathematical skills, but they end up also measuring students test-taking abilities. And, obviously, those students who attend high schools that do a particularly good job of preparing their students for the SATs are more likely to score highly than those who do not. These advantages and disadvantages among students are close to inevitable.

But the inequalities do not end there. There are also the tutors, classes and books that have recently sprung up, promising to improve SAT scores. Every year more and more students pay to use these resources in the hope of bumping their score up one hundred points or so.

These classes do not seek to raise students scores by teaching them English and mathematics but by coaching them in test-taking tactics. They teach students which answers they can eliminate simply because they are too extreme or too conservative. They teach the logistics of when it is better to guess or to leave a question blank. They teach students what types of questions are usually on the test and the best ways to go about answering them. They don't teach facts, they teach strategies. The reality is that these classes and/or tutors cost a fair amount of money, so most students who take them are middle and upper class.

Many students, myself included, believe that all of this preparation goes against the ideal of the SATs. As the number of students taking these preparation classes has increased, many people have come to believe that the SATs have drifted too far from their original purpose: providing colleges with a standard by which to judge students that minimises advantages.

Those of us who hold this view are in a difficult position. Although we believe that these classes undermine the goal of the SATs, it is also true that we want to get into the college of our choice. This poses something of a dilemma: is it worth turning down the opportunity to raise your score in order to avoid supporting these tutors and classes? I have not used a tutor or special classes to boost my score. Many of my friends have.

For most students, the SATs are the single most important test they take in high school. They know that the higher their score, the better their chance of getting accepted by the college of their choice. Unfortunately, parents, teachers and students themselves seem to forget that SAT scores are only a piece of the puzzle.

Many parents insist their children take multiple practice tests and bombard them with all the possible test strategies, teachers frequently happen to come across words their students will need to know for the SATs and students stress about the test to the point of sleeplessness. They get so caught up in these scores that it seems as if they are the only criterion for college admission. But the truth is admissions officers look at students' grades, recommendations, accomplishments and essays, as well as at SAT scores.

It is obvious that the SATs are an extremely flawed test. Although it is still useful, it is clear that it is no longer achieving its original purpose. All of the recent tutoring makes one wonder if the SATs should still be considered a reliable measure of students' academic abilities. All of the pressure that comes hand in hand with the test makes one wonder if it is worth having at all.

The writer is a student at an urban public high school in America

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