Will the New SAT Promote Diversity?

The test currently favors white, affluent students, and it’s not clear whether that will change.

National Journal
Sophie Quinton
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Sophie Quinton
March 10, 2014, 9:47 a.m.

The col­leges and uni­versit­ies that have stopped re­quir­ing ap­plic­ants to sub­mit SAT or ACT scores have made the change with stu­dents like Richard Vel­iz in mind. A ju­ni­or at George Ma­son Uni­versity in Vir­gin­ia, Vel­iz knows his per­form­ance on the ad­mis­sion ex­ams didn’t ac­cur­ately re­flect his abil­ity. “I’m just not a good test-taker, so I didn’t get good scores on it at all,” he says. But at George Ma­son, Vel­iz is now earn­ing a 3.37 grade point av­er­age, al­most identic­al to the 3.4 he earned at his Wash­ing­ton, D.C. high school.

The Col­lege Board, which designs and ad­min­is­ters the SAT, re­cently re­designed the test in an at­tempt to level the play­ing field with ques­tions ac­cess­ible to stu­dents from all back­grounds. (The Col­lege Board also spon­sors Na­tion­al Journ­al’s Next Amer­ica poll.) But many edu­ca­tion ex­perts counter that the real way to make the col­lege ad­mis­sions pro­cess fairer — par­tic­u­larly when it comes to low-in­come, first-gen­er­a­tion, and minor­ity stu­dents — is to get rid of these ad­mis­sion tests al­to­geth­er.

A grow­ing num­ber of col­leges and uni­versit­ies ran­ging from George Ma­son to Chica­go’s De­Paul Uni­versity now be­lieve that a stu­dent’s high school grades are the best pre­dict­or of col­lege per­form­ance, and they have altered the way they make their ad­mis­sions de­term­in­a­tions to put lim­ited weight, or no weight at all, on the SAT or ACT. “The four-year pro­cess of be­ing a stu­dent in high school is far more like the four-year pro­cess of be­ing a stu­dent in col­lege than any oth­er single thing you can think about. It’s cer­tainly not like a three-hour test,” says Jon Boeck­enstedt, as­so­ci­ate vice pres­id­ent for en­roll­ment man­age­ment and mar­ket­ing at De­Paul.

The new SAT, which will de­but in 2016, is de­signed to be a more straight­for­ward test of what stu­dents learned in high school. It will in­volve more pas­sage ana­lys­is, use­ful vocab­u­lary, and a more fo­cused math sec­tion. The es­say por­tion will be op­tion­al, with a prompt provided to stu­dents in ad­vance. Test-takers won’t be de­duc­ted points for get­ting an an­swer wrong. “We are not in­ter­ested in stu­dents just pick­ing their an­swers but jus­ti­fy­ing their an­swers,” says Col­lege Board Pres­id­ent Dav­id Cole­man.

The non­profit Col­lege Board is also com­mit­ting to oth­er ef­forts aimed at help­ing lar­ger num­bers of low-in­come test-takers get in­to col­lege. A part­ner­ship with free on­line course pro­vider Khan Academy will make test prep ma­ter­i­als widely avail­able at no cost. And the Col­lege Board will send col­lege-ap­plic­a­tion-fee waivers to eli­gible stu­dents. 

Yet the test will re­main es­sen­tially the same: a timed as­sess­ment that ranks a di­verse group of teen­agers whose high school ex­per­i­ences and course work vary widely. Crit­ics ar­gue that the cur­rent test fa­vors af­flu­ent, white, and male test-takers, and that it is par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult for test-takers with learn­ing dif­fer­ences such as dys­lex­ia. Per­haps the most widely cited crit­ic­al re­search comes from the 2009 book Cross­ing the Fin­ish Line, by former Prin­ceton Uni­versity Pres­id­ent Wil­li­am Bowen, Spen­cer Found­a­tion Pres­id­ent Mi­chael McPh­er­son, and Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion Fel­low Mat­thew Chin­gos. The three aca­dem­ics found that SAT and ACT scores were both weak pre­dict­ors of col­lege suc­cess.

What test scores do cor­rel­ate to, re­mark­ably well, is wealth. “Test scores trans­mit gender and ra­cial and so­cial-class dis­par­it­ies that high school grades simply do not,” says Joseph Soares, a so­ci­ology pro­fess­or at Wake Forest Uni­versity who has writ­ten ex­tens­ively about the tests. The Col­lege Board con­siders a score of 1,550 out of a pos­sible 2,400 in­dic­at­ive of col­lege read­i­ness. In 2013, the av­er­age SAT score for test-takers with an an­nu­al fam­ily in­come of be­low $60,000 was be­low 1,550. White and Asi­an test-takers, on av­er­age, scored high­er than a 1,550. Afric­an-Amer­ic­an and His­pan­ic test-takers, on av­er­age, did not. But av­er­age test scores did march stead­ily up­ward by in­come brack­et.

The chil­dren of wealth­i­er, bet­ter-edu­cated par­ents are ex­posed to more and more com­plex words from a young age. They tend to take the SAT and its pre­curs­or, the PSAT, mul­tiple times, get­ting in more prac­tice. Their par­ents are bet­ter able to af­ford ex­pens­ive test-prep classes and tu­tors. Their high schools may be more likely to em­phas­ize es­say writ­ing.

Yet wealthy stu­dents with great test scores but lousy high school grades don’t do as well in col­lege as low-in­come stu­dents with lousy test scores but great high school grades. The dy­nam­ic is most ap­par­ent at uni­versit­ies that auto­mat­ic­ally ad­mit stu­dents based on grades or class rank.

The Uni­versity of Texas (Aus­tin), for ex­ample, uses an ad­mis­sions for­mula that es­sen­tially auto­mat­ic­ally ad­mits all Texas stu­dents who are in the top 8 per­cent of their high-school class. At a 2009 con­fer­ence that Soares or­gan­ized, then-Ad­mis­sions Dir­ect­or Bruce Walk­er said the school has found that low-in­come stu­dents who rank in the top 10 per­cent of their high school class typ­ic­ally go on to earn first-year col­lege grades just as good and gradu­ate at the same rate as wealthy stu­dents who didn’t qual­i­fy for auto­mat­ic ad­mis­sion.

Get­ting rid of the tests can also in­crease the di­versity of a school’s ap­plic­ant pool and, po­ten­tially, its cam­pus pop­u­la­tion. Pitzer Col­lege, a se­lect­ive lib­er­al arts col­lege in South­ern Cali­for­nia, made sub­mit­ting test scores op­tion­al a dec­ade ago. “Our di­versity has gone up 58 per­cent. We’ve also seen a doub­ling of low-in­come, first-gen­er­a­tion stu­dents who ap­ply to the col­lege,” says An­gel Perez, vice pres­id­ent and dean of ad­mis­sions and fin­an­cial aid. Last year, 70 per­cent of ac­cep­ted stu­dents didn’t sub­mit any test scores. Re­ten­tion rates have ris­en, and aca­dem­ic qual­ity re­mains strong, Perez says.

At Pitzer, ad­mis­sions of­ficers con­sider each ap­plic­ant in the con­text of the op­por­tun­it­ies avail­able to him or her. “We look at what was com­pet­it­ive at that high school,” Perez says. Stu­dents aren’t pen­al­ized for fail­ing to take Ad­vanced Place­ment classes if their high school didn’t of­fer them. As­sess­ing every stu­dent in this way takes a lot more time and ef­fort than dis­qual­i­fy­ing stu­dents with bad test scores, but Pitzer’s fac­ulty and ad­mis­sions team be­lieve it’s worth­while.

Some in­sti­tu­tions may find that, in their case, ad­mis­sions test scores do pre­dict suc­cess, Perez says. But col­leges and uni­versit­ies should do the re­search, and ask them­selves the ques­tion: “Are we ex­clud­ing a sig­ni­fic­ant sec­tion of the Amer­ic­an pop­u­la­tion by re­quir­ing this ex­am?”

Col­lege Board Pres­id­ent Dav­id Cole­man knows that SAT scores alone don’t pre­dict col­lege suc­cess. The new test will be sent to in­sti­tu­tions with a safe use warn­ing: “SAT scores should only be used in com­bin­a­tion with oth­er rel­ev­ant in­form­a­tion to make re­spons­ible de­cisions about stu­dents.”

What We're Following See More »
FCC Tightens Internet Privacy Standards
7 hours ago

Along party lines, the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday voted to tighten privacy standards for Internet service providers. "The regulations will require providers to receive explicit customer consent before using an individual’s web browsing or app usage history for marketing purposes. The broadband industry fought to keep that obligation out of the rules."

Obama Commutes Another 98 Sentences
8 hours ago

President Obama commuted the sentences of another 98 drug offenders on Thursday. Most of the convicts were charged with conspiracy to distribute drugs or possession with intent to distribute. Many of the sentences were commuted to expire next year, but some will run longer. Others are required to enroll in residential drug treatment as a condition of their release.

DOJ Busts More Than 50 for Call Center Scam
8 hours ago

The Department of Justice announced today it's charged "61 individuals and entities for their alleged involvement in a transnational criminal organization that has victimized tens of thousands of persons in the United States through fraudulent schemes that have resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in losses. In connection with the scheme, 20 individuals were arrested today in the United States and 32 individuals and five call centers in India were charged for their alleged involvement. An additional U.S.-based defendant is currently in the custody of immigration authorities."

Johnson on Ballot Everywhere, Followed by Stein, McMullin
10 hours ago
Clinton Up 9 in USA Today Poll; Up 3 According to Fox
12 hours ago

A new USA Today/Suffolk University poll finds Clinton leads Trump by 9 points nationwide, 47% to 38%. A Fox News national poll has Clinton up just three points, 44% to 41% over Trump.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.