Opinion

Why the new SAT is not the answer

Ahead of weekend test rollout, two exam-prep tutors weigh in with their concerns

Akil Bello, left, is the director of strategic initiatives for the Princeton Review in New York City and a former entrepreneur with a quarter century experience helping low-income students and the organizations that serve them understand admissions testing. James Murphy, right, is the director of tutoring for the Princeton Review in New England and a freelance writer with almost two decades of experience getting students ready for the SAT.

Two years ago, the College Board laid out its plan to “move beyond delivering assessments to delivering opportunity.”

David Coleman, the nonprofit’s president, unveiled several measures to be used along with these assessments to “propel students toward college success,” particularly low-income students, first generation college students and students of color.

This Saturday, March 5, the College Board administers the new SAT for the first time.

Having seen both the redesign of the SAT, and a sequence of truly significant College Board actions, we remain dubious that these initiatives will ever work in concert with the standardized test.

Related: Will the new common core SAT close the privilege gap?

If anything, the discord between them is likely to grow as the College Board pursues an equitable society using a test that is designed to mark and promote distinctions.

For all the positive changes the College Board has made, the new SAT shouldn’t be counted among them. It is a test, not a solution.

The College Board has made several changes in recent years that will help increase opportunity, chiefly its fee-waiver program. Fee waivers allow eligible students take the SAT and SAT Subject Tests free of charge — and apply free to four colleges.

Related: The real reason colleges go test-optional

Community organizations can now distribute waivers; in the past only high school counselors could do so. The waiver system could be more efficient — there is often a rush to get waivers out to seniors at the start of the school year in time for the October exam — and the College Board needs to devise a way to distribute them once an August SAT date begins in 2017, but all in all, the fee waiver program provides a real benefit to low-income students.

So, too, does using the Preliminary SAT-National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) to also identify students who qualify for scholarships designed for students of color and low-income students.

This year the applicant pool of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which provides support for high-performing, low-income students, grew nearly 200 percent as a result of its alliance with the College Board. This, again, is clearly a win. (The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation is a funder of The Hechinger Report).

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The benefits of other changes are not as clear-cut. Seven states, Washington, D.C., and New York City already offer or will soon offer school-day SAT testing. Taking the test in school instead of on the weekend means higher attendance, especially from students who have fee wavers. “A staggering number of students actually never show up to take the test” on the weekend, even when it’s free, says Harold O. Levy, The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s executive director.

Making the SAT both a school-day exam and a state assessment, as several states are, could be counterproductive, however. When schools and districts are liable for their students’ SAT scores, they will be more likely to introduce SAT preparation into the curriculum, thus taking away from traditional schoolwork. SAT prep should not become a third-period class.

Another initiative that is, on the face of it, a boon for students who can’t afford to pay for SAT prep is the College Board’s partnership with the nonprofit Khan Academy to offer high quality practice material free of charge. The problem is that most teenagers — to be fair, most people — lack the discipline to carry out self-improvement plans alone, which is one reason tutoring and personal training are in demand.

The difference between availability and usage was highlighted at a conference in Boston in February, where a College Board executive director announced that over 750,000 unique users had enrolled for SAT prep with Khan but only 20,000 had taken a full test, a key component of test preparation. As of this week, 900,000 unique users of Khan had completed 39,000,000 questions. But that averages out to just 43 questions per student (the new SAT has 154* questions).

Related: The difference between being eligible for college and ready for college

What about the changes to the test itself? Will they be particularly effective in closing the SAT’s income and race gap? Three changes to the test strike us as noteworthy. First, students no longer need to study vocabulary flashcards. Second, they now have more time per question. And finally, the penalty for wrong answers is now gone.

The first two changes benefit everyone, so they will do little to close any gap. The last change may not be that helpful if students are not aware that they should leave no questions unanswered. For the students who have done test prep will know they can use a “letter of the day” for any questions they cannot get to. A letter of the day is an answer choice letter (A, B, C, etc.) that the student chooses before test day to answer all the questions he or she guesses on. But students who have not been coached may be unaware of this benefit and simply leave points on the table.

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As for the other changes to the test, there is little to say. Some recent stories have suggested that the revised test will penalize students who don’t read a lot, or who are first generation English language speakers. This complaint fails to consider the effects of removing tougher vocabulary and the granting of more time per question. But what good would a reading test be that doesn’t penalize people who are not good at reading?

We question this brand of criticism because it assumes, just as College Board does, that the content and the structure of the SAT can significantly help or harm outcomes for particular communities. Revising the SAT is unlikely to do much of anything for low-income and first-generation students unless the content or structure of the old test was inherently biased against them. Ultimately, no change to the test will actually erase socioeconomic disparities because tests are diagnostic tools rather than instruments of change.

Think of the SAT as a thermometer. Both report symptoms of underlying disease, and we thus want both measures to be as accurate as possible. The new SAT might be that. We do not however use a thermometer to treat pneumonia, and neither should we try to use the SAT to redress the deep socioeconomic inequities that it reflects, or perhaps even exacerbates.

Related: A free, personal tutor for one college admissions exam. But will it work?

The problem with thinking that the SAT can lift the prospects of everyone is that a test on which everyone succeeds will be of little benefit to college admissions officers. The SAT makes distinctions between students, which is precisely why the SAT is ultimately at odds with all the other work College Board is doing to increase access to college.

The College Board’s recent attempts to deliver opportunity to students is essentially in conflict with one of the SAT’s core missions: Helping colleges distinguish between students so they can make admissions decisions, award merit aid, and determine the need for remediation.

The College Board and secondary schools want equity; colleges want excellence; students want opportunities; and their parents want advantages. The SAT cannot serve all these masters.

Akil Bello is the director of strategic initiatives for the Princeton Review in New York City and a former entrepreneur with a quarter century experience helping low-income students and the organizations that serve them understand admissions testing.

James Murphy is the director of tutoring for the Princeton Review in New England and a freelance writer with almost two decades of experience getting students ready for the SAT.

*The number of questions in the new SAT has been corrected.

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Akil Bello

Akil Bello is the director of strategic initiatives for the Princeton Review in New York City and a former entrepreneur with a quarter century experience… See Archive

James Murphy

James Murphy is the director of tutoring for the Princeton Review in New England and a freelance writer with almost two decades of experience getting… See Archive