Roy Freedle and the SAT: A decades-long saga

At the risk of reducing a very serious educational issue to a soap opera, this blog entry by the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews recounts an ongoing struggle by opposing camps, one that sees the SAT as inherently biased while the other side does not. Beyond the issue at hand, this illustrates how philosophy as much as empirical evidence comes into play in the development of educational policy.

Roy Freedle is 76 now, with a research psychologist’s innate patience. He knows that decades often pass before valid ideas take root. When the notion is as radical as his, that the SAT is racially biased, an even longer wait might be expected. But after 23 years the research he has done on the surprising reaction of black students to hard words versus easy words seems to be gaining new respectability.
Seven years ago, after being discouraged from investigating findings while working for the Educational Testing Service, Freedle published a paper in the Harvard Educational Review that won significant attention.
He was retired from ETS by then. As he expected, his former supervisors dismissed his conclusions. Researchers working for the College Board, which owns the SAT, said the test was not biased. But the then president of the University of California system, a cognitive psychologist named Richard C. Atkinson, was intrigued. He asked the director of research in his office to replicate Freedle’s study.
Now, in the latest issue of the Harvard Educational Review, the two scholars who took on that project have published a paper saying Freedle was right about a flaw in the SAT, even in its current form. They say “the SAT, a high-stakes test with significant consequences for the educational opportunities available to young people in the United States, favors one ethnic group over another.”

The Harvard Educational Review article is available here (subscription required).


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