In my famous unwritten book What Americans Don't Know About Themselves, there will be a chapter devoted to what Americans widely consider to be the best educational system in the world. My chapter will include the latest OECD data, showing that the US is, in fact, 14th when it comes to literacy among developed countries; it would also show that in maths, the US ranks 19th out of 21 countries, and in science 16th. Not that anybody in the US will take a blind bit of notice; the other day I heard an academic here dismiss "these so-called international academic comparisons".
We in Britain should be better informed. Yet I've been reading alarming reports from the UK that the country may soon be getting its latest US import - SATs for 16- and 17-year-olds. The Sutton Trust, I'm told, has been pushing for them in Britain. SATs were taken by more than two million American high school students here this academic year. The three-hour, computerised test is the main determinant of who gets (or doesn't get) into which of the nation's 2,083 colleges and universities. Because of the brevity and abruptness of the test, it puts untold stress and strain on this age group - and their parents, who start collectively having nervous breakdowns years before their children are ready to sit their SATs.
America, in fact, is having second thoughts about SATs at just the time British interest is peaking in the 76-year-old American phenomenon. Last year, Richard Atkinson - a cognitive psychologist who is also president of the University of California, the largest university system in the country, with ten campuses and 90,000 hopeful students taking SATs every year - called for the abolition of the SAT. "The SATs have acquired a mystique that's clearly not warranted," he said. "Who knows what they measure?"
But the appearance, he went on, is that they measure how skilled the pupil is at taking tests - not his or her understanding of Shakespeare or particle physics, or even of basic literacy or maths. "A comprehensive, holistic manner" was what Atkinson wanted the college application process to adopt. His revolutionary proclamation brought a quick riposte from Gaston Caperton, president of the non-profit College Entrance Examination Board, which oversees SATs: "Dropping the SAT from the admission process would be like dropping grades because you decided grades were not a very good indicator of college achievement," he said. "It is a very critical ingredient in the college admissions process." Some 300 colleges have none the less stopped the mandatory use of SATs - the most prominent being Mount Holyoke, the 165-year-old private women's college.
So how did the US get itself into this mess, with the country's most powerful university head repudiating the very test his own university still uses to choose applicants? ("America's overemphasis on the SAT is compromising our educational system," he says.) The test was invented by a man called Carl Brigham (a psychologist who later believed in, and then denounced, eugenics), and developed from intelligence tests used on the military during the First World War; with those early roots, the SATs came to be seen as intelligence tests, although that was never their specific aim. The single test gradually metamorphosed into SAT I, the critical one which is supposed to measure verbal and mathematical abilities; and SAT II, which measures knowledge in specific academic areas. The SAT took off in 1967.
It was known until 1990 as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, but then changed its name to the more politically correct Scholastic Assessment Test; in 1996, it dropped all words in its title, leaving just the acronym to become one of those American phenomena where you are simply supposed to know what the SAT is. In 1993, another milestone was passed when calculators were permitted. Atkinson said last year: "We are caught up in the educational equivalent of a nuclear arms race."
There are three basic reasons why the SAT has become, in the minds of many educationalists here, a failure. The first is that it discriminates in favour of pupils with wealthy parents, who often spend thousands of dollars on special tuition. There is a $400m-a-year SAT coaching industry, with one man named Stanley Kaplan having become legendarily rich in creating courses that coached pupils in how to take SATs; with nearly all questions being multiple choice, he taught the kids cunning, such as when the odds were better to guess at a question for which they didn't know the answer, or to leave it blank.
Websites brim over with courses offering expensive preparation for the SAT, and few middle-class pupils go without at least several hundred dollars' worth of private preparation; some parents are even willing to pay hundreds just for an hour for what they undoubtedly expect to be magical tuition.
The second prime objection is that black and Hispanic pupils do worse at the SAT, and nobody quite understands why. It has been generally assumed to be a cultural phenomenon whereby blacks and Latinos are not tuned in to the middle-class white cultures from which the tests originate. But new surveys show that even wealthy black and Latino kids fare badly. This was tested when two separate groups of white, black and Hispanic pupils were given a test; one group was told the test was to measure their intelligence, the other was told nothing. In the second group, the minority pupils did as well as the white people. In the first, they did less well. In other words, it seems that expectations of success or failure, ingrained in a discriminatory society, are the reasons why black and Latino kids do less well.
The final - and in some ways most devastating - indictment of the SAT is that it is a poor predictor of how pupils will perform at college or university. It is common nowadays for kids to produce slick videos about themselves in their packets of college applications, with perfect SAT scores and impossibly ideal CVs: but these students are often those who go on to perform least well. Admissions offices are increasingly looking at interviews, where they find the SAT-perfect kid on paper bears no relation to the dull personality looking across the room at them; conversely, interviews are being shown to be better predictors of later success even when an applicant's SAT scores are poor. In the words of one admissions officer: "What we want to know is: where is the kid's heart?"
The warning drums that Atkinson sounded last year have already had an effect. The College Board, ever anxious to adapt to whatever is necessary, is now planning to revamp the SAT - with the first new tests being taken in March 2005. The most epochal change is the introduction of a 50- or 60-minute writing section, which will include multiple-choice questions but also an essay; those essays will then be provided to the colleges or universities to which the pupil is applying. Gradually, more maths sections will be added, including more advanced algebra and trigonometry. The new test "will be more aligned with curricula", says Caperton, adding that the SAT is still the best available test because it has "evolved over the past 76 years to meet changing needs". The dean of admissions at Harvard (which has places for only around 11 per cent of applicants) welcomed the changes, saying: "I think it will lead to real reform."
Even Atkinson, at least for the time being, is mollified: the University of California will continue to use the SAT until further notice. The agonies now being sweated by their British counterparts at A-level results time, meanwhile, came much earlier in the year here. But one thing is certain: pupils and parents are already furiously plotting SAT strategies in America, when many will not actually go to college for many years hence. It is a ludicrous and unedifying spectacle.
And when I write the book it will be further explored, in excruciating detail, in What Americans Don't Know About Themselves.