SAT Changes Are a Good Start

But vast inequities between students from low- and high-income backgrounds still remain.

Lauri Novick is the executive director of Let's Get Ready, a nonprofit organization that helps 4,000 low-income students annually, in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, and many small towns and rural districts throughout the Northeast.  
National Journal
Lauri Novick
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Lauri Novick
March 12, 2014, 8:25 p.m.

I listened with hope­ful en­thu­si­asm to the news and ana­lys­is last week as Col­lege Board Pres­id­ent Dav­id Cole­man an­nounced sweep­ing changes to the SAT, in­clud­ing ef­forts to help more low-in­come high school stu­dents gain ad­mis­sion to col­lege. The Col­lege Board’s moves rep­res­ent im­port­ant steps in the right dir­ec­tion, but they are small ones in our na­tion’s jour­ney to nar­row its huge achieve­ment gap.

There is an al­most 400-point gap in SAT scores between the richest and poorest stu­dents, ac­cord­ing to a 2013 re­port pub­lished by the Col­lege Board. Stu­dents with low in­comes at­tend four-year uni­versit­ies at much lower rates than their high­er-in­come peers, and they are ad­mit­ted less of­ten to se­lect­ive private uni­versit­ies which of­ten of­fer more ro­bust fin­an­cial aid and sup­port ser­vices for low-in­come stu­dents than pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions.

Cole­man clearly un­der­stands the col­lege-ad­mis­sions field and how tilted it is in fa­vor of chil­dren of af­flu­ent fam­il­ies who at­tend the best schools and then have ac­cess to count­less hours of in­di­vidu­al­ized and ex­pens­ive SAT tu­tor­ing. Test scores today don’t ne­ces­sar­ily re­flect know­ledge or aptitude — they are a badge of fam­ily in­come.

The Col­lege Board’s new part­ner­ship with Khan Academy seeks to ad­dress this in­equity by of­fer­ing free SAT prac­tice and tu­tori­als on­line. This is a re­fresh­ing move.

At Let’s Get Ready, a New York City-based non­profit provid­ing SAT prep and col­lege-ad­mis­sions guid­ance to about 4,000 stu­dents throughout the North­east each year, we look for­ward to tak­ing ad­vant­age of these tools. However, we also know that tech­no­logy is not a pan­acea. Many low-in­come stu­dents and the schools they at­tend do not have easy ac­cess to high-speed In­ter­net ser­vice or com­puter labs. Some stu­dents are work­ing part-time. Oth­ers of­ten lack col­lege role mod­els or ba­sic in­form­a­tion about the ad­mis­sions and fin­an­cial-aid pro­cesses. But blend Khan’s train­ing ma­ter­i­als with a net­work of people who are there to help and you’ll see an in-class ex­per­i­ence that pro­duces even bet­ter res­ults than just an on­line course. That blend is pre­cisely what the par­ents of more af­flu­ent stu­dents have been able to pur­chase.

At Let’s Get Ready, we un­der­stand the power of SAT tu­tor­ing and prac­tice. Our pro­gram has sub­stan­tially raised SAT scores for low-in­come stu­dents. LGR stu­dents in­crease their SAT scores by an av­er­age of 115 points, in ad­di­tion to gain­ing found­a­tion­al read­ing, writ­ing, and math skills needed in col­lege.

We also know that there is no sub­sti­tute for people who care. At its core, that is what Let’s Get Ready of­fers with its an­nu­al en­gage­ment of 1,300 pas­sion­ate vo­lun­teer col­lege coaches. The or­gan­iz­a­tion trains vo­lun­teer col­lege stu­dents to tu­tor and ment­or loc­al high school stu­dents — a “near-peer” mod­el — on col­lege-ad­mis­sions guid­ance and in­tens­ive SAT prep in small group set­tings. With per­son­al­ized at­ten­tion from col­lege stu­dents who have just gone through the col­lege-ad­mis­sions pro­cess, Let’s Get Ready stu­dents feel spe­cial and uniquely em­powered.

These coaches are of­ten the very first col­lege stu­dents our pro­gram par­ti­cipants have ever met. Stu­dents re­ceive calls and texts be­fore and after every ses­sion and work in small classes of no more than five stu­dents per col­lege coach. They re­ceive en­cour­age­ment and pre­par­a­tion for a new, un­fa­mil­i­ar world of col­lege that of­ten takes them away from fam­ily and friends. It’s a mod­el that of­fers be­ne­fits to both sides. Coaches get work ex­per­i­ence, lead­er­ship train­ing, and an in­creased com­mit­ment to pub­lic ser­vice.

Con­sider Gideon Aderemi, a high school stu­dent from the Bronx. Pri­or to his ex­per­i­ence with Let’s Get Ready he had no idea how the col­lege-ap­plic­a­tion pro­cess worked. He was wor­ried about fin­an­cial aid, pay­ing tu­ition, and get­ting a high enough score on the SAT. But with Let’s Get Ready’s as­sist­ance Gideon is now a seni­or ma­jor­ing in en­gin­eer­ing at NYU Poly­tech­nic In­sti­tute. In Gideon’s own words, “Let’s Get Ready makes a dif­fer­ence in the lives of its stu­dents by mak­ing them real­ize that there is sup­port out there. That there is al­ways someone look­ing out for you.”

Along with ex­pan­ded, free ac­cess to on­line train­ing tools, the SAT’s new em­phas­is on the es­sen­tial skills stu­dents need to suc­ceed in high­er edu­ca­tion should also be lauded. Of course, it re­mains to be seen how this new test pans out, but Cole­man de­serves cred­it for try­ing to tie the test to what’s re­quired in col­lege. At Let’s Get Ready we second that ef­fort with a new Col­lege Suc­cess Ini­ti­at­ive to en­sure col­lege gradu­ation — not just ac­cept­ance or at­tend­ance.

Let’s Get Ready has more than a dec­ade of ex­per­i­ence tu­tor­ing and em­power­ing stu­dents, many of whom would nev­er have con­sidered com­plet­ing a col­lege ap­plic­a­tion or even tak­ing the SAT without a pro­gram like ours. As the share of low-in­come and minor­ity high school gradu­ates con­tin­ues to grow, ex­pand­ing this work has be­come crit­ic­al so that the next gen­er­a­tion of Amer­ic­an work­ers re­main com­pet­it­ive.

That’s why sub­stan­tial pro­gress to­ward lev­el­ing the SAT play­ing field re­quires a mul­ti­tude of bold strategies and in­ter­ven­tions — all re­quir­ing more gov­ern­ment and phil­an­throp­ic dol­lars. “There is no sil­ver bul­let” for clos­ing the achieve­ment gap writes Car­oline Hoxby, pro­fess­or of eco­nom­ics at Stan­ford Uni­versity and seni­or fel­low at the Hoover In­sti­tu­tion. And it’s an is­sue that re­quires ur­gent ac­tion. In­stead of gain­ing ground, the United States has fallen from 12th to 16th in the share of adults (ages 25 to 34) hold­ing col­lege de­grees in in­dus­tri­al­ized na­tions, ac­cord­ing to a re­port from the Or­gan­iz­a­tion for Eco­nom­ic Co­oper­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment. This coun­try trails glob­al lead­ers South Korea, Canada and Ja­pan and is mired in the middle of the pack among de­veloped na­tions.

In the end, the slate of changes an­nounced by the Col­lege Board are one part of a much broad­er move­ment to do more than gauge the re­sources to which stu­dents have ac­cess. We ap­plaud the moves taken by the Col­lege Board but know there is much more to do.

As Pres­id­ent Obama said at a re­cent edu­ca­tion sum­mit we must “re­store the es­sen­tial prom­ise of op­por­tun­ity and up­ward mo­bil­ity that is at the heart of Amer­ica.” At its root, the SAT was cre­ated as a way for stu­dents to prove they were col­lege-ready re­gard­less of their back­ground or what high school they at­ten­ded. We’d like to see that mis­sion fully re­stored.

Ed­it­or’s note: The Col­lege Board spon­sors Na­tion­al Journ­al’s Next Amer­ica poll, a semi­an­nu­al look at is­sues re­lated to the chan­ging demo­graph­ic makeup of the United States. 

Cor­rec­tion: The ori­gin­al ver­sion of this op-ed stated that the United States has fallen to 16th glob­ally in the num­ber of adults hold­ing col­lege de­grees in in­dus­tri­al­ized na­tions. The rank­ing is ac­tu­ally ac­cord­ing to the share of adults hold­ing col­lege de­grees in a coun­try.

 Lauri Novick is the Ex­ec­ut­ive Dir­ect­or of Let’s Get Ready, a non­profit or­gan­iz­a­tion that helps 4,000 low-in­come stu­dents an­nu­ally, in New York City, Bo­ston, Phil­adelphia and many small towns and rur­al dis­tricts throughout the North­east.

HAVE AN OPIN­ION ON POLICY AND CHAN­GING DEMO­GRAPH­ICS?The Next Amer­ica wel­comes op-ed pieces that ex­plore the polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic and so­cial im­pacts of the pro­found ra­cial and cul­tur­al changes fa­cing our na­tion, par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant to edu­ca­tion, eco­nomy, the work­force and health. Email us. Please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

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