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A Better Test

AS of last week, the acronym SAT, dreaded by high-school seniors, no longer stands for scholastic aptitude test - but for scholastic assessment test. The idea of assessment is less threatening, and more accurately reflects the thrust of the new SAT tests. Starting in 1993 they will rely on problem-solving and the identification of themes in reading, rather than simple multiple choice. In this sense, the College Board, which oversees the nation's largest standardized test, is emphasizing the trend toward analysis and reasoning and away from ``rote'' memorization. To the degree teachers begin to have students consider the themes and causes behind the facts they are learning, this is positive. (``Critical thinking skills'' is suspect, however, as a panacea. There will always be a need to be culturally literate and to ``know many things.'')

Critics say SAT changes are cosmetic. Some think it should be a pure essay test, which raises a number of practical problems in grading. But while the test hasn't been totally overhauled, the changes are helpful.

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Too much is made of tests. SATs don't assess the character and integrity of students. Nor should students' future potential ever be reduced to their SAT scores. Experience shows the two don't follow. Tests are one measure, and one measure only. It is only the top 5 to 10 percent of colleges that take SATs overly seriously, anyway.

But SATs can be useful. There ought to be some universal standard or measure for learning. There are also some implicit benefits, such as sociologist David Riesman's point that SATs can often buffer students against overachieving parents.

Small-scale intensive essay exams should be experimented with by colleges. But so far, no one has come up with a good alternative to the SAT. And now the College Board has shown it can be flexible, and make the present test a better test.

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