Monday, March 14, 2016


"As the SAT evolves, so do opinions on its value" by Kenya Downs, PBS NewsHour 3/8/2016


Thousands of high school students piled into test centers early March as the first group to take the new, revamped SAT.  The College Board, which administers the test, promises a more comprehensive, modern evaluation of potential college success.  However, as April Brown reports, this new initiative isn't without controversy and push back.  That's to be expected of a national college-readiness assessment with a unique evolution.

The SAT has a mysterious past:

According to PBS's Frontline, the early days of the SAT had little to do with college prep at all.  In fact, it was more about staffing the U.S. military with intellectually sound personnel.  The origins of the SAT date back to World War I when Robert Yerkes, an I.Q. test professional, convinced the U.S. Army to test new recruits.  Originally called Army Alpha, it was the first I.Q. test to be administered to the masses.  Yerkes' assistant, Carl Brigham, further developed Army Alpha to make it harder and eventually worked with colleges to adapt the test for all would-be college students and scholarship seekers.

So why is it mysterious?  The College Board will neither confirm nor deny this version of the SAT's origins.  Here's what their senior vice president did say:

“Well, the early days of psychometrics was certainly driven by this concept of aptitude and recognizing individuals who had the aptitude to do well.  This worked very well, particularly for those students attending secondary schools that were not well-known to colleges and universities in being able to identify students that have the potential to be successful at college.”

– James Montoya, senior vice president at College Board,

Here's where the SAT stands now:

There are many changes in the new version of the SAT, including a focus on content students are more likely to find in college and adult life.  That includes streamlined sections, a more contemporary vocabulary test and no more penalties for guessing.

Many test-prep experts say the new SAT now looks more like its competitor, the ACT, which more students have opted to take in recent years.  And it's no coincidence.  The SAT is losing market share to the ACT and has come under fire not only for its expense, but access.  One of the many criticisms of the SAT is that the test creates a disadvantage for women, minorities and the poor who are less likely to afford the costly prep courses.  The College Board aimed to tackle this by partnering with the Khan Academy, a online educational service, to offer free test-prep.

But just days before the new test was administered, several would-be test-takers were uninvited.  The College Board sent a letter to some who signed up saying they've been bumped until May.  The board cited a “new security measure,” but most of those uninvited guests are actually test-prep professionals.  Patrick Bock, a professional tutor who's taken older versions of the SAT more than a dozen times, believes it was tactical.  “They don't want really bad press from experts who understand testing,” he said.  “[Test-prep experts] skewer the tests for questions that aren't quite where they need to be.”

Does the SAT have a viable future?

Some colleges are completely opting out of the SAT and ACT as a requirement for admission altogether.  The premise isn't entirely new.  According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, more than 850 colleges and universities nationwide are now test-optional.  Bates College first became test-optional in 1984 and Wake Forest University was the first major school to ditch test requirements in 2008.

Research has shown that standardized tests like the ACT and SAT aren't viable indicators of college readiness or success, and that going test-optional boosts student diversity.  So now more schools are following suit.  The University of Delaware announced in February that their admissions will become test-optional for in-state students beginning in the fall and George Washington University became the largest institution to jump on board last year.  Vice provost Laurie Koehler said they made the decision in order to improve diversity.  And so far it's worked:

Applications to George Washington University Since Going Test-Optional

Overall applications up 28%

Minority applicants up 30%

First-generation applicants up 35%

Male applicants up 23%

Female applicants up 32%

“We did see more than 28 percent increase in our applications,” she said.  “But what was striking was the numbers of first generation students, or underrepresented, multicultural students who submitted applications – nearly 1,100 more in each of those populations.”

The numbers are still preliminary and don't indicate how many of those new applicants were actually accepted.  Still, even with the College Board's push to improve formatting, access and affordability, a spike in diverse applicants to test-optional schools could spell trouble for the SAT and its competitor the ACT in the future.

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