SAT Changes Show Just How Rigged It Was To Begin With

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Earlier this week, while announcing a major redesign of the SAT college admissions test coming in 2016, College Board President David Coleman publicly acknowledged something most of us have known for a long time: our use of the SAT favors privileged students.

The mission of the College Board, which makes the SAT, is to “expand access to higher education.” But in practice, it appears to have played out as one more tool for children of wealthy parents who can spend thousands of dollars on expensive test preparation and tutoring to attend Ivy League schools.”

I applaud Coleman for recognizing this perversion and pointing out some painful truths.

He was unambiguous in that the expensive test preparation industry has reinforced privilege over opportunity; the SAT is disconnected from students’ work in high school, making it even harder for those who can’t afford costly test preparation to catch up; and that low-income and minority students are underrepresented among test-takers. He also reminded parents, students, and teachers of something they know all too well: the excessive focus on cramming and coaching for the test has fostered destructive anxiety among students.

I also commend Coleman for putting his words to action by promising to inject some much-needed equity into the SAT and make sure that it better reflects the knowledge and skills actually needed to succeed in college and career.

For the first time, The College Board will be partnering with Khan Academy, a nonprofit educational website, to provide free test preparation to the world. This means, ideally, that low-income students will be on more equal footing as their peers whose parents shell out excessive cash to private companies for tutoring, flash cards, and more. Of course, we know that free test preparation alone cannot erase the effects of a lifetime marked by inequality and obstacles. Still, it’s a great start.

Importantly, this free test preparation appears to be high quality. It will be based on evidence of what accelerates student learning. It will give personalized feedback on where students are weak and provide resources for students, teachers and parents to address those weaknesses. As Coleman explained, “Assessment is not a stopping point.”

The College Board is already sending low-income students with academic potential personalized financial aid packages and fee waivers for up to four college applications, and this practice will continue for every income-eligible student under this redesign. It is working with corporate partners to help identify earlier those who will need additional support to access such opportunities.

Coleman also announced promising news for all students: starting in 2016, the SAT will be redesigned to focus more on the work students do today in their classrooms and be rid of arcane vocabulary words that are never used beyond the actual test. The SAT test will be more transparent and clearly focused on a smaller set of essential skills. And what is probably music to every parent’s, educator’s and employer’s ears, the test will highly reward the real-world skills of reading, thinking analytically, reasoning with evidence, and writing clearly.

To be sure, while these changes to the SAT are most welcome, today’s students face more high-stakes, high-pressure testing than ever. Remember, the SAT is an assessment taken for college admission in addition to the years of testing required under No Child Left Behind and newly implemented in most states under the Common Core State Standards (which Coleman helped write). That’s why I’m glad Coleman emphasized that test scores “should NEVER be used alone to make decisions about a person’s life and future.”

This is an important reminder as part of the growing revolution in this country to change how we measure students and how we use those measures beyond just the SAT. In fact, the changes to the SAT reflect several important lessons for reforming standardized testing in America’s public schools.

Test scores should only be used in combination with other information about a student’s progress and performance and in a way that informs teaching and does not punish students. Assessments cannot be glued to the past and value regurgitation over critical thinking. We must do everything in our power to root out inequality from testing. No one should be able to buy a top ranking.

There is much that we can take away from the College Board’s new initiative to improve the way we assess students in public schools. Let’s acknowledge the painful truths that continue to play out throughout the country and get on board with the revolution.

Carolyn Heinrich is a Professor of Public Affairs and affiliated Professor of Economics at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a member of the Scholars Strategy Network

Stock photo: “Pencil on test page” (Shutterstock/anaken2012)

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