The Real Problem With the SAT

There’s currently a 400-point gap between the highest- and lowest-income students.

National Journal
Brian Resnick
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Brian Resnick
March 6, 2014, midnight

The Col­lege Board, the com­pany that pro­duces and dis­trib­utes the SAT, knows its tests are not kind to the poor, or to minor­it­ies.

“We need to get rid of the sense of mys­tery and dis­mantle the ad­vant­ages that people per­ceive in us­ing costly test pre­par­a­tion,” Dav­id Cole­man, the Col­lege Board pres­id­ent, told a crowd at the SX­SW Con­fer­ence on Wed­nes­day, where he an­nounced sig­ni­fic­ant changes to the test’s format. 

“Too many feel that the pre­val­ence of test prep and ex­pens­ive coach­ing re­in­forces priv­ilege rather than mer­it,” he said.

SAT test prep can cost hun­dreds or thou­sands of dol­lars. But the stu­dents who can least af­ford the help are the ones who would be­ne­fit the most from it. The chart be­low (via Fair Test, a stand­ard­ized test­ing watch­dog group), shows clearly that as fam­ily in­come in­creases, so do scores on the ex­am. Between the poorest and richest stu­dents, there’s a 400-point gap.

(Fair Test)

The new test, to be first ad­min­istered in 2016, is de­signed to re­flect more classroom know­ledge. It’s go­ing to scale back on the use of “SAT words” — you know, the ones that only seem to ex­ist for the sake of the test. (Who ac­tu­ally would say the word “simu­lac­rum” out loud?) The new vocab­u­lary will re­flect words more com­monly used in col­lege classrooms. The es­say, which was in­tro­duced in 2005, will be­come op­tion­al. A per­fect score will once again be 1600, down from 2400. Math ques­tions will fo­cus more on equa­tions, and the read­ing sec­tions will in­cor­por­ate more sci­ence and Amer­ic­an his­tory texts.

“It is time for an ad­mis­sions as­sess­ment that makes it clear that the road to suc­cess is not last-minute tricks or cram­ming but the chal­len­ging learn­ing stu­dents do every day,” Cole­man told USA Today.

In ad­di­tion to the changed ex­am, Cole­man also an­nounced fee waivers for low-in­come stu­dents who will be able to send their scores to four col­leges free of charge.

Wheth­er these changes can get more poor stu­dents ad­mit­ted in­to col­lege (and os­tens­ibly a high­er chance of en­ter­ing the middle class), we’ll have to see.

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