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The world of standardized testing has its own language and history; an entire branch of science, psychometrics, is devoted to test design and analysis. But the tiny discipline touches most Americans' lives at some point. Psychometricians help devise tests for fire fighters, lawyers, architects, teachers and, of course, kids. Virtually every American child takes a standardized test at some point, and yet there is widespread confusion over what tests do and do not measure. Insta-experts from the media and from antitesting groups often repeat fallacies: blacks do better in college than their SAT scores predict (actually, for reasons that aren't well understood, blacks tend to do worse in college than matched groups of whites with the same scores); how well you do on the SAT will determine how well you do in life (SAT scores have little power to predict earnings).
Six months ago, TIME asked the College Board if we could sort out some of these conundrums by following the development of the New SAT from inside. To our surprise, board president Gaston Caperton III agreed. Renouncing his predecessors' often combative p.r. approach, Caperton allowed me to attend a series of meetings at which New SAT items were previewed and debated. An experienced politician--he was elected Governor of West Virginia in 1988 and '92--Caperton knows the old adage about making laws and sausage. Designing tests is also a messy process, and he deserves credit for laying it bare. But while the production of New SAT questions has entailed some expected debates--Is this item too hard? Is that one biased against women?--I saw something quite unexpected as well: Caperton is changing the very nature and purpose of the SAT.
At his insistence, the goal of influencing school curriculums has become the overriding preoccupation of the new test's developers. Caperton speaks with less enthusiasm about the traditional mission of the SAT: to help colleges predict how well applicants will do if they are admitted. To be sure, Caperton believes the notion (actually, he's staking his career on it) that the SAT can both improve high schools and still remain useful to colleges as a predictor. But the first goal is a political aim; the second, a psychometric one. And Caperton has surrounded the New SAT with dozens of educators who aren't schooled in psychometrics.
Which raises the possibility that Caperton may, in his well-intentioned effort to ameliorate schools, ruin his main instrument for doing so. "I'm worried they may be asking one test to carry too many buckets of water," says Fred Hargadon, a former College Board vice president. Caperton believes the SAT should be a tool of social change as well as of social measurement--that it should serve communitarian ends even as it tries to give reliable, valid scores to individual kids and colleges. "This [new] test is really going to create a revolution in the schools," he says. But can the SAT be engineered to fulfill all his ambitions?