I cheered when I read that the SAT will soon eradicate penalties for wrong answers, a test quirk that plagued me as a teen. I laughed to see that the test will "return" to a 1600 point scale, because I was only vaguely aware that it had changed.
In case you missed it, the long-feared college assessment exam is getting a makeover. As of 2016, it will, in theory, more closely reflect how a student performs in the classroom. The essays will be optional and carry a separate score. Gone will be obscure "SAT words" like 'anemometer' (wind velocity measurer) or 'isobar' (a line joining points of equal barometric pressure). Yes, I had to look those up.
What people may have missed in all the hoopla is that the new SAT is part of a much bigger endeavor on the part of the College Board, which creates and distributes the exam and Advanced Placement tests. The changes may be incremental, but inch by inch, they could be monumental. In short, the College Board is looking to influence all outcomes that ripple out from its tests, even if those outcomes have more to do with social or economic disparities. If half of the low-income kids who score in the top 15 percent on the SAT don't apply to a single selective college, that's a problem. If less than 20 percent of the students who take the computer science AP exam are girls, that's also a problem.
"The College Board has to take responsibility for the practice our assessment inspires," said President David Coleman last week at the Teaching and Learning Conference in Washington, D.C. "We have to say, 'It may not be our fault, but it is our problem.'" He pledged to look for changes to address those problems.
Educators and journalists met the College Board's SAT announcement with interest and skepticism. The Washington Post did a good rundown of these reactions. Outside observers noted that the SAT has lost market share to a competitor college assessment, the ACT. Educators worried that the changes would do nothing but create confusion for college-bound students. Some said the test is being dumbed down.
Among the skeptics, probably the most damning argument (and perhaps the closest to reality) is that the new test won't address income disparities or the gaps in scores between minorities and white students. In 2013, there was a 300-point difference between the average score of African American and white students, according to FairTest.org. There was a 160-point difference between students whose family annual income was below $40,000 and those whose families earned more than $100,000 per year.
This is why the test changes alone might not do much, but they also won't do nothing. The College Board is waiving the test fee for low-income students. That's not such a big deal, but it may mean that some inner city kid has an opportunity to take the test multiple times, which tends to improve scores. What's more, income qualifying kids can get four waivers for college application fees each time they take the test. That's four more chances than they might have had.
There are other ideas in the works. Coleman said the board is looking at options to have the SAT administered on school days rather than Saturdays. That simple change could dramatically increase the number of kids who take it, particularly those for whom a Saturday schlep isn't just inconvenient, but impossible. The College Board is also offering SAT prep courses for free.
Taken together, these changes could put the country one step closer to the distant goal of giving every kid a chance. If you lump on top of the College Board's goals the ideas buzzing in the broader world of education philanthropy--allowing kids to test their grade knowledge online or wiring all schools for broadband--the goal becomes more achievable.
At least SAT scores will make sense to me again.
For our insiders: What impact does the SAT test currently have on school counselors, high school teachers, and college admissions officers? Will the changes to the test affect how it is used by these educators? What impact will the test fee waivers and college application fee waivers have on low-income students? Does Coleman's statement about taking responsibility for the ripple effects of the SAT test imply bigger changes down the line? If so, what changes should take place? Do aptitude exams really matter?
(Note: This is a moderated discussion on education issues. Comments are approved on a case-by-case basis. Contact me if you want to be a regular commenter.)
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