Starting in March 2016, students will be taking a new version of the SAT. The redesigned SAT claims that it will remove barriers to college, making it possible for more students to own their future.
The redesigned SAT also claims to be returning to its original 1901 purpose, which was to create greater access to higher education for a diverse population. College Board, the nonprofit that administers the test, aims to do so through free practice tools, more waivers of testing fees and increased scholarship opportunities.
The question is: will the redesigned SAT be able to deliver on these attempts to ensure greater equity, or will it merely continue to measure the achievement gaps (disparity in educational outcomes) as they exist in our society?
As a researcher of educational equity, I know how much our nation’s achievement gaps are a direct result of the underlying opportunity gaps that result from the inequities in our stratified educational system. Research has found that using standardized tests in general, and the SAT specifically, as a gatekeeper for access to higher education reinforces such inequities.
A multi-billion industry
Until 1994, the test was known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test: it was believed that the test measured innate ability. Subsequently, it was renamed the Scholastic Assessment Test in recognition that the test measured achievement rather than aptitude. And since 1997, it has been officially known as the SAT.
Today’s SAT has been proven to be coachable – which means with tutoring and test preparation, students’ scores can rise.
Test coaching is a multi-billion dollar industry. Eastern Arizona College, CC BY-NC-ND
Consequently, test preparation has become a multi-billion dollar industry in the U.S. as well as overseas. Students in elite schools in countries such as South Korea focus on obtaining perfect SAT scores. Test prep courses could well range from US$300 a course to $775 an hour in the U.S. and up to $30,000 in South Korea with college admissions counseling.
The SAT is used for college admissions as a measure to predict how successful a student will be in college. However, large-scale research conducted by the University of California in 2001 found limited correlation for an earlier version of the SAT in predicting future success in college. These results led to the California state universities no longer requiring the test in 2012.
In fact, a growing number of colleges and universities no longer require SAT or ACT, another widely used college entrance exam, in large part because of the limited effectiveness of the tests in predicting success in college.
What will change in the new SAT?
The revisions to the SAT to begin in March 2016 include a return to the original scoring system of 1,600 for combined math and the newly named “evidenced-based reading” subtests.
Writing an essay will now be optional. The current version (in use since 2004) requires the essay for a three-part test, with a maximum score of 2,400. This optional essay provides greater flexibility for students, particularly for those whose math skills may be much stronger than their writing skills. Such students will not be penalized for a lower writing score.
Importantly, there will be no penalty for guessing on questions – previously a wrong answer got a penalty of a quarter-point. The critical reading section, renamed evidenced-based reading and writing, will use historical documents that have inspired individuals. Examples of this would be speeches by India’s leader of independence movement Mohandas Gandhi, American women’s rights' activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
The math revisions are said to be aligned with the Common Core. This section will have less computation and more real-world problems.
But there are varying views on math revisions.
Schools across the nation are in different places in their implementation of Common Core State Standards. So students in different places may or may not be taught in ways that align with the revisions. For example, James Murphy, a test preparation tutor, in his article in the Atlantic suggests that the revised SAT math questions will potentially have the greatest detriment for most vulnerable students – low-income and nonnative English speakers – because of their lack of adequate preparation for these type of questions.
Some others believe these revised SAT math questions are more straightforward and require clearer demonstration of math concepts.
What will be helpful to students is the change in the vocabulary section that has been redesigned to prioritize defining more commonly used words in context rather than the notoriously obscure SAT vocabulary of previous test versions.
The redesigned vocabulary section will do away with obscure words. Philipp, CC BY 4.0
As with earlier tests, sample test questions will be available for practice.
For the transition period, many colleges will be accepting SAT scores from the previous version administered through January 23, 2016 or the revised version administered after March 5.
The College Board has created greater flexibility in the ways scores can be reported that students select. For example, students can choose to report the optional essay test score for a total score out of 2,400 or report just the math and reading sections for a total score out of 1,600. The College Board says this allows students to select their best scores for reporting to colleges and comply with what various colleges are requiring.
SAT for school accountability
Of late, the SAT has not only been used for college admissions, but also as an accountability exam required for high school students under the No Child Left Behind legislation and continuing under the Every Student Succeeds Act.
This was started by Maine in 2006, followed by Colorado, Connecticut and New Hampshire, to meet the mandates of the federal legislation.
Does the test actually measure how much students are learning? Along with the proven impact of high-cost private tutoring, the use of the SAT for school and teacher deserves more scrutiny. This is especially true because standardized tests are often a primary or even sole measure used in school report cards.
In college admissions, the SAT is one of many measures of an applicants’ readiness – which is how it should be.
Good measurement practice says that no single assessment should be used for high-stakes decisions. Rather, multiple measurements in multiple formats at multiple points in time provide much more robust and accurate results.
So, the college application includes test scores, GPA, cocurricular activities, early college and/or AP credits, recommendation letters and essays.
Possibly, colleges could ask applicants to create and justify a “weighted formula” that demonstrates why an applicant’s total profile is a best fit for that institution for college admissions. This would require students to take ownership and advocate for their passions and successes as predictors of their future success. This type of measurement could serve everyone well.
The revised SAT can be one piece of a multidimensional system for college admissions for the over 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S.