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Is the New SAT Really Improved?

BU education professors weigh in

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Current college students might have wished they’d been conceived just a few years later after hearing last month’s big news: the SAT, that stress-fest test of college admissions, is being  revised, beginning in 2016.

The mandatory essay, instituted in 2005, will become optional. The vocabulary section will dump arcane words in favor of ones common to college study; the math section, which currently covers a broad range of areas, will focus on three: proportional thinking, functions, and linear equations. (Calculator use will be banned for certain math sections, too.) And the test will no longer penalize wrong guesses. The College Board, which administers the SAT, has also promised free instructional videos and online practice problems, created in collaboration with the educational website Khan Academy, before introducing the new test.

The changes accompanied candid admissions from the College Board: the test flunks when it comes to covering students’ high school instruction and has helped spawn a high-price test-prep industry that exacerbates income inequality. Skeptics, however, smelled a marketing ploy, as the SAT has been edged out in usage by the competing ACT. (Most BU programs give applicants the option of submitting results either from the SAT or the ACT-cum-a writing test.) Meanwhile, the reforms have split critics of the SAT, with some applauding the changes and others saying that standardized testing will always reduce students to a meaningless score; they favor scrapping the test altogether and substituting a college admissions system based on high school records and life achievements.

BU Today ran questions about the revised SAT by two School of Education professors, Christina Dobbs, a clinical assistant professor of English education, and Joel Scott, a clinical assistant professor and director of higher education administration.

BU Today: Do you think the new SAT will better predict students’ ability to do well in college?

Dobbs: I’m not certain whether it will predict ability to do well in college better than it used to, and I’m definitely not certain it will do a better job than GPA can do. But I think the changes raise the possibility of better prediction than the current measure. I’ve read that one rationale behind the changes is to better align with students’ high school learning, and I’m not certain that translates to better prediction of college success. I wonder more broadly about the alignment between high school and college curricula, though I hear echoes of the new Common Core State Standards in the new SAT language.

One professor writes that if the new SAT reflects high school grades, it’s redundant, since universities can use high school grades themselves in admissions.

Dobbs: If the new SAT brings unique value to admissions packages, I think it could be useful, but I would need to be convinced that it brings new information to the table.

Scott: While incoming class SAT/ACT averages are not a major portion of the rankings formula, I imagine Tier 1 and top 100 universities would have to address this “elephant in the room” in moving forward with alternative considerations.

I think it’s important to note that over 800 institutions already make the SAT/ACT optional. A legitimate percentage of US universities already believe that overreliance on standardized tests is problematic and biased. Consideration of other success traits such as GRIT (resilience, ambition, and motivation) is gaining traction.

Will the changes diminish the usefulness of test preparation services and “studying for the test”?

Dobbs: I think there could be less need for test preparation services, especially if the plan to use Khan Academy to make test prep more accessible plays out in the way it has been envisioned. I hope this will ultimately result in a fairer measure, though I feel pretty sure that the test prep companies will find a way to be fine.

The New York Times quotes an admissions officer saying that for admissions offices inundated with applicants, the SAT, however flawed, is a handy way to winnow the pool. Should such understaffing really be a reason for keeping the SAT?

Dobbs: This is not a reason that convinces me that the SAT should be kept, though supporting admissions offices as they are inundated does seem to be an issue worth thinking about.

Scott: I have several graduate students in higher education administration who are full-time admissions officers at surrounding Boston universities. My sense is that these officers live in the tension between the privilege they feel to represent their institutions and the inevitable quality-quantity pressures facing our modern, research-extensive universities.

Will the new SAT be fairer to groups critics say are cheated under the current system—i.e., low-income students who can’t afford the more expensive test prep services?

Dobbs: I’m not sure that this is what will happen, but I am really hopeful that it will be fairer with these changes. I think that by attempting to be more in line with the high school curriculum that most high school students learn, students will have greater opportunity to be successful.

Scott:  I’m not sure the proposed changes address the deeper issues here. Social critics and reform advocates have long voiced their concerns over the inherent bias of standardized tests. At the end of the day, higher education has heavily relied on standardized tests that have historically been shown to favor privileged populations. Don’t we have a moral responsibility to look into any of our education processes with a critical eye toward equity and inclusion?

Media reporting suggests that the College Board did this as a business proposition, because it’s losing market share to the ACT.

Scott: I do think it’s evident there are market tensions here, but it’s difficult to critique sincerity and motivation.

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Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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