SAT changes should now show what students know, not how they’ll do

Economists and the College Board have something in common: Both attempt to foretell the future, and neither is very good at it.

The College Board is best known for its development and administration of the Scholastic Aptitude Test taken by high school students planning, or hoping, to continue their education at a college or university. Just recently, the College Board announced several significant changes in the SAT that would go into effect in spring, 2016.

The biggest changes are:

The timed, written essay portion is no longer required;

The questions are more closely related to the high school curriculum;

The reading and writing section has been modified to be more evidence-driven;

The vocabulary section has been dumbed down;

The math section has been consolidated and pocket calculator use has been restricted; and

Scoring has been reset — from the current 2400 back to 1600 for a perfect score — with no deductions for wrong answers.

The changes were made by the College Board partly in response to the increasing volume of criticism it has been receiving from students, teachers, parents and college admissions officers. Another factor was that the once-upstart ACT (American College Testing) exam was eating the SAT’s lunch; more students are now taking the ACT test than the SATs. Perhaps more significantly, the ACT exam didn’t attract anywhere near the number of complaints that have been aimed at the SAT.

It made economic sense for the College Board to adjust its test to more closely resemble its faster-growing competitor’s exam. In that capitulation, though, the College Board buried its long-standing model of “aptitude” which had originally been at the heart of the SAT exam.

The SAT will now set aside the idea of an exam that can independently measure the ability to do college-level academic work. The exam will become closer and closer to a standardized high school achievement test, in other words, an exit exam.

High school grades have long been a better predictor of college performance than SAT scores. Moving the SAT exam content closer to the high school curriculum, then, will improve the statistical correlation between scores on the test and college performance.

In the end, the changes to the SAT exam will achieve the trifecta of pragmatism for the College Board. The revised SAT will meet the competition head on; it will reduce the amount of criticism; and it will be a better predictor of success in college.

There is a price for all that pragmatism and statistical correlation, though. The dream behind the SATs had been that its combination of intelligence and aptitude testing wouldn’t just identify the known and unsuspected academic stars; it could also open a door for students who had, for one reason or another, under-achieved in high school. Students come in all varieties and not every bright kid is challenged or energized by his or her high school environment.

That dreamy dimension of the SAT still remains, because SAT scores play such a large role in the minds of college admissions officers and committees. Students whose high school records would otherwise earn them a small-envelope rejection letter can partially offset that record with a strong performance on the SAT.

From a broader perspective, the dreamy, door-opening aspect of the SAT exists for a relatively few individuals. It isn’t a very wide door, and at its best will allow just a few students to pass through.

Neither the dream nor the new and improved SATs are a cure for the ailments of our public elementary and high schools, or for the racial and economic inequities they perpetuate. The most hopeful change in that area is the College Board’s plan to work with the Kahn Academy to make test preparation materials free and available via the Internet. How much effect this will have on “gaming the system” with expensive tutoring and test preparation courses that now boost the scores of privileged kids isn’t known. But it is a step in the right direction.

Criticism of the changes to the SAT should be tempered by recognition of the economic and academic environment. The College Board is a consumer-driven entity, not a Hammurabi-like rule giver. It must respond to changing demand and cannot afford to ignore sustained criticism. If academic standards are decaying at the high school and college level the SAT must reflect that or risk extinction.

The SAT score cannot foretell your kid’s future in college, any more than an economist can foretell our economy’s unemployment rate four years from now. What we can foretell, though, is that if we don’t do our job and level the playing field of educational and economic opportunity, we also risk extinction.

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