Redesigned SAT: Will it broaden more students' college horizons?

Among other things, the new SAT is meant to level the playing field for students who can’t afford fancy test-prep classes and align more closely with the skills that colleges want students to practice.

Carol Kaliff/Hearst Connecticut Media/AP
Zhane Dimmitt, left, a junior at Danbury High School, studies for her SATs with Jennifer Berth, co-director of the Sylvan Learning Center, in Brookfield, Conn., on Feb. 25, 2016.

Thousands of students are heading to testing centers Saturday morning – guinea pigs for a major overhaul of the SAT, a standardized college entrance exam used around the country.

The new version is meant to level the playing field for students who can’t afford fancy test-prep classes, align more closely with the skills that colleges want students to practice, and lessen the stress around the test.

Among the students who took the test during school Wednesday in participating districts, 80 percent of 800 surveyed by the College Board said they preferred it to the old version and that it better reflected what they’ve been learning in school. 

But only time will tell how well the new test accomplishes its goals. In the world of selective colleges and universities (a small but influential slice of American higher education), there’s still a tension between making such exams better and greatly reducing their weight in the admissions process. A growing number of institutions are even going test-optional, no longer requiring SAT or ACT scores.

“There were good reasons for them to be redesigning it,” says Matthew Chingos, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington who has studied college access. The SAT has not added much in terms of predicting a student’s success in college, particularly at large institutions with graduation rates that hover around 50 percent, he says, but its use has broadened far beyond the original set of elite colleges that were trying to compare aptitude among students from a wide range of high schools.

Instead of featuring obscure vocabulary words that students memorize for the test and then forget, the new SAT emphasizes more-common words in context.

“Practicing for the SAT should be the same as practicing to strengthen college readiness skills,” says Cyndie Schmeiser, the College Board’s chief of assessment.

The new test also removes the penalty for wrong answers, bringing it into line with ACT policy. For the essay-writing section, which is now optional, students can see in advance the type of task they’ll be asked to do, such as analyzing the author’s evidence and persuasive arguments (but they still won’t be able to preview the reading passage on which the essay will be based).

The SAT has taken steps in recent years to broaden access to opportunities for preparing for the test and applying to colleges – particularly for students who are economically disadvantaged or the first in their families to try to navigate the admissions process.

Twenty-three percent of high-achieving, low-income students apply to a selective school, compared with 48 percent of high-achieving, high-income students, notes a recent report from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, a major funder of scholarships and other supports for students with financial need.

The College Board has partnered with the online Khan Academy to offer free tutorials and practice questions. More than 900,000 students have accessed the Khan Academy materials, completing at least 39 million practice questions.

Income-eligible students get waivers for the SAT registration fee as well as fee waivers for four college applications.

As more school districts sign up to offer the exam during the school day for free, research suggests the number of high-schoolers applying to college will rise.

All 11th-graders in New Hampshire took the SAT Wednesday, because the state is now using it for federal accountability testing.

“We have a lot of students whose families aren’t talking about college ... and [giving the SAT in school] really did start discussions with kids that normally wouldn’t even think about [it],” says Bill Cannon, director of guidance for Manchester Central High School in Manchester, N.H.

Koran Sherman, a junior at Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, N.H., says that “a few friends were mad about taking [the SAT], but on Wednesday they were like, ‘This is cool ’cause I didn’t have to go in on Saturday morning,’ and they were thinking about doing it a second time to improve their scores for colleges.”

The changes to the SAT don’t necessarily make it easier or less anxiety-producing, says Lee Weiss, Kaplan Test Prep's vice president of college admissions programs.

The new test still requires at least three hours of questions involving analyzing text and data, Mr. Weiss says. With its implications for admissions and scholarships, “this is a high-stakes test” where your score counts relative to other students, he says.

Grace Kiritsy, a junior at Manchester Central, says she had prepared by taking the PSATs and using free apps to study. But Wednesday was “still nerve-racking because it’s the big test.... It plays a big role in what colleges you can get into.”

But not everyone is impressed with the revised SAT. “The ‘new’ SAT may look more consumer-friendly, but is not a better test,” says Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), which encourages colleges and universities to go test-optional, in a statement. “The changes seem designed to compete with the ACT, the most widely used admissions exam. The College Board also appears more interested in trying to slow the test-optional movement than improving the test’s measurement precision.”

Since the SAT redesign was announced, about 50 institutions have joined the more than 800 that are test-optional or test-flexible, FairTest reports.

The University of Massachusetts at Lowell is one that’s recently gone test-optional. An analysis found that “we were turning away some great students whose standardized test scores did not reflect their ability to succeed,” admissions director Kerri Johnston told The Boston Globe.

The SAT and ACT are still needed by many colleges “to calibrate across different schools and teachers,” says Harold Levy, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. The exams are a “necessary evil,” he says, but adds that it’s encouraging that more and more organizations are giving low-income students the support they need to prepare for, apply to, and succeed in college.

The Khan partnership “is not comparable [to high-priced private coaching], but it begins to level the playing field,” says Mr. Levy, who is formerly head of New York City public schools and a Kaplan executive.

The foundation’s recent report called for institutions to balance out the unfairness that academically qualified low-income students face by giving them a preference in admissions. “Being poor shouldn’t be a reason you don’t go to a competitive college,” Levy says. “If we do not do this right, we are losing an enormous number of highly gifted members of our potential workforce.”

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