Will the New SAT Promote Diversity?

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

National Journal
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.”

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