POV: The SAT Is Going Digital, but Is That Really the Change We Need to See?
POV: The SAT Is Going Digital, but Is That Really the Change We Need to See?
It remains to be seen if the College Board can reinvent itself in our new test-optional and test-blind reality
On January 25, the College Board announced the launch of their new “student-friendly” digital SAT. Coincidentally, later that day, I attended College Night for the Class of 2023 at Boston Latin School, where my son is a high school junior. Over the course of the evening, admissions directors from three selective institutions gave parents and guardians the details on what their teams look for when making admissions decisions, from grades to extracurricular activities and standardized test scores.
So, how much of a role do standardized tests like the SAT play in the overall admissions decision for undergraduate admissions to these selective institutions, all of which are currently test-optional? According to these folks, not very much. It is one optional element of a portfolio of activities, awards, etc., that applicants have at their disposal when completing their college applications. These admissions folks spent more time talking about the required essays and the importance of showing that you have the persistence and ability to take on and complete difficult tasks.
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted much of this, including the delivery of the SAT. My son and his classmates were in their first year of high school when the pandemic hit and it looks like it will still be with us when they graduate in June 2023. They missed out on over a year of time creating memories together, and for many of them and their families, the priority is on making up for lost time by building relationships and growing up. As we know, the mental health of our children and young people has taken a hit. From this perspective, it’s hard to see how spending time preparing for the SAT feels relevant in their lives.
However, the test-taking business is big business. Recent estimates put it at a $4.5 billion industry. Students and their families pay for online test prep, tutors, and the tests themselves. When institutions go test-optional, an entire sector is left to figure out how to reinvent itself and make itself relevant. This is what the College Board is trying to do now. Instead of reinventing the SAT to meet the needs of 21st-century college admissions counselors, high school guidance counselors, students, and their families and guardians, it seems that they have doubled down on making what they refer to as “more student-friendly changes,” with a digital SAT that is easier to deliver and easier to take, rather than more relevant.
While over 80 percent of our colleges and universities are currently test-optional, a trend accelerated during the pandemic, some have gone one step further, implementing test-blind policies. These institutions—most notably the entire University of California system—will not accept test scores as part of a student’s application to their undergraduate programs.
Critics of standardized tests like the SAT believe that test-optional and test-blind policies are here to stay, and they only see this trend increasing. FairTest executive director Bob Schaeffer highlights the benefits of this move: “Schools that did not require standardized exam score submission for fall 2021 admission—current first-year undergraduates—generally received more applicants, better academically qualified applicants, and more diverse pools of applicants. With such positive results, there’s no rational reason to restore test-score requirements.”
This comes at a time of declining birth rates, when our institutions are competing for a decreasing number of 18-year-olds. Many institutions have already implemented changes to reduce barriers to application, and higher education may soon be at a point when students choose where to apply based on test-optional or test-blind policies.
My colleague, Joshua Goodman, Wheelock College of Education & Human Development associate professor of education and economics, has written about the racialized patterns of standardized test taking, especially as they relate to the practice of repeat testing. Black and Latinx test takers are more likely to be “one and done,” whereas white and Asian test takers are more likely to take these tests multiple times. When adding up the amount of time students have dedicated to test prep courses, meeting with tutors, and sitting for multiple tests, the commitment does match the level of some extracurriculars, potentially replacing participation time in enrichment activities like basketball, a school play, or the debate club.
This all begs the question: how does a standardized test help students tell the multifaceted stories of who they are today and highlight the promise and potential of who they might become tomorrow? Institutions that have gone test-blind have already decided that the SAT is no longer part of the equation. It remains to be seen if the College Board will be able to reinvent itself in our new test-optional and test-blind reality.
Mary L. Churchill is BU Wheelock College of Education & Human Development associate dean for strategic initiatives and community engagement and director of Wheelock’s Higher Education Administration program. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact John O’Rourke at email@example.com. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.
Questions about the College Board’s own long-term business strategy aside, standardized test scores (regardless of modality) remain in play because such scores, along with undergraduate grade point average (UGPA), aid in predicting important aspects of student success in college. Some studies have shown that test scores are a leading predictor. Other studies have shown that UGPA is a leading predictor. Either way, predicting success at a selective institution is certainly in both a student’s and an institution’s best interests.
Selective institutions like to boast of their “wholistic” admissions selection criteria, but when they’re vetting thousands of applications each year (80,000 at BU alone!) there’s a realistic need to weed out applicants. If such institutions eschew SAT scores, won’t they default to UGPA as their sole winnowing tool? And isn’t UGPA also susceptible to similar income-based and race-based disparities?
It’s interesting that the University of California system was cited. Though they’re no longer accepting test scores, that wasn’t the recommendation of their own faculty-led Standardized Testing Task Force: https://senate.universityofcalifornia.edu/_files/committees/sttf/sttf-report.pdf Instead, the Task Force’s analysis revealed that disparities along lines of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status were a function of multiple factors, and that SAT and ACT scores were the smaller of those factors. High school students’ access to A-G courses (i.e., a series of high school courses that students must complete to be minimally eligible for admissions to state higher education systems) was the leading and disproportionate factor behind equity gaps.
The question of the College Board’s reinvention plan then is a bit of a red herring. Instead (or at least in addition to), we should be asking questions about how best to invest in lower schools and the communities that have historically been excluded from higher education so as to increase propensity for student success at selective institutions.
There has been a desire to move away from standardized tests in order to enact more squishy admissions policies. Unfortunately this will wind up putting more weight on fancy extracurriculars or the high school the kid goes to.
As a student who was privileged enough to take all the prep courses necessary to do well on the ACT, I can very much say the exam is more of a reflection of preparation than intelligence. Many of my peers who took the same exam on the same day with quantifiably higher intelligence than I scored far lower, and as a result suffered during college applications solely on the basis of their test scores. I understand the point of view brought up by the other commenters here about the vetting process for schools with a large number of applicants, so as a compromise it may be better for there to just be better access to quality preparation for these exams.
I understand my point may be anecdotal, but going through the NY state free prep for the ACT/SAT prior to private tutoring, I learned quickly that it was just a program designed to fill the quota of free tutoring; an opinion many of my peers shared before enrolling in a prep course. If we are to keep these exams in place for the sake of applications, we should also find better ways to 1. provide quality tutoring accessible to all applicants, and 2. modify the exams to not just test one’s test-taking abilities, but ability in general.
As a student that lived through the times of required standardized testing, I was really interested to read about the policies going forwards for the next generations of college students. I think you provided a great factual arguments about the financial damages that the pandemic did to the test-taking business and how colleges are waning away from standardized tests. However, I know a few high school students that celebrated not having to take standardized tests because of the bad reputation that they had, such as being some of the most stressful hours of their high school lives and the pressure of getting scores high enough for their dream colleges.
Also, I think that there is a fair argument that standardized test were not a good measure of intelligence, even before the recent changes. Personally, I think that I am a pretty good test taker, which is very key for tests like the SAT. However, I had many high school classmates that were just as smart, if not smarter than me, who did not do as well on the SAT solely because they have extreme test taking anxiety. So, were standardized tests truly a proper way of gauging a prospective college student’s intelligence?
I was a high school student when standardized testing was not only encouraged by my high school, but also required for most universities I applied to. Initially, it was easy to say that these standardized tests were arbitrary. It’s even easier to say that if you don’t do well on the test. Nonetheless, my peers and I took the exams and tried our hardest to excel so that we would be considered by our top universities. I believe the issue is not whether or not universities are requiring or considering these exams, but the value which these exams provide to the student and to the schools which they apply to.
The SAT and the ACT may be flawed in their execution, but I think the principle is definitely sound. For one, standardized tests are a fairly accurate measure of intellect. I don’t mean to say that if one scores poorly on these tests that they are not intelligent, just that class grades are subjective between teachers and high schools. If there would be a way to rate a student’s performance based on their academic achievement compared to others in a similar situation, I would propose that. I think that would be too complicated to achieve in practice though, so the next best thing is a standardized test. Secondly, the world is full of standardized tests with much more importance than the SAT (GRE, MCAT, etc.), so I don’t think it’s a bad idea to introduce the concept in high school. If a student doesn’t do well the first time they take it, they can always retake it, and I imagine any university would appreciate improvement over time as a metric for the academic abilities of a student.
The SAT and ACT aren’t perfect, and there’s definitely many changes that need to be made. However, their elimination is an overall detriment to the students that take them and the universities that use them as a metric for success.
The changes in standardized testing have been very interesting and unexpected changes that came out of the pandemic. College Board is looking for any way to catch up and stay relevant, but making the SAT digital doesn’t seem like a great solution. It’s hard to imagine that any of the colleges that made their applications test-optional will revert back to their past policies, so one day in the near future there probably won’t be tests like this anymore.
This is for the better though, as like many other commenters have mentioned, these tests are not a reflection of a student’s intelligence, but rather a reflection of how much much they are able to prepare. However, I can’t help but wonder if things will be different when tests are removed from applications altogether? Extracurriculars will be more important, but it can be argued that these also are not a reflection of how well-rounded a student is, as extracurriculars can often be “bought” by parents, or “won” through school popularity contests.
Perhaps a minor point, but the article equates a decreasing birth rate to a decreasing number of 18 year- olds applying to college. This is completely false. A decreasing birth rate only means a slowing of our exponential population increase. The number of people on Earth, and thus the number of 18 year olds will continue to increase throughout this century.