WASHINGTON – Administrators of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) have announced with great fanfare that they are overhauling the standardized tool that helps determine whether an applicant will get accepted into the college of his or her choice.
But in revamping the test, SAT officials are facing a test of their own.
"The redesign is trying to get a sense of what students learned in high school...and trying to help students demonstrate their critical thinking skills instead of just picking an answer. And that's all well and good," said Michelle Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a college-access policy think tank.
"But the real question is, are all students getting the same opportunity to learn those skills before they get to college? Students, especially low-income black students, often go to schools that are under-resourced. Will they have ever been exposed to the type of questions to be asked on this test, or will it all just reinforce the bias we already see?"
In part because of what some perceive as racial and cultural bias – along with poor schools – many African Americans don't do well on the standardized test.
Last year, only 15.6 percent of African-American students who took the SAT reached or exceeded College Board's 'SAT College and Career Readiness Benchmark' score of 1550 (out of 2400 possible points). According to College Board, the nonprofit education giant that created and develops the exam, this score is associated with a 65 percent chance of earning a college freshman year GPA of a B- or higher. The figure was up from 14.8 percent in 2012.
Averaged scores for individual sections of the SAT were lowest among African-American test takers, hovering around 430 (out of 800) per section. The average scores for their white and Asian-American counterparts were in the mid- to upper-500s. Everyone else's scores – Native Americans, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Latinos, and students identifying as "other"—averaged about 450 and above.
Although the test's intended use is to assess college readiness, researchers, educators, and policy makers allege that it has had a hand in creating the access disparities it now intends to fight.
For example, there are the test-prep courses and books that give students an edge – if they can afford it. College Board's online course is currently $69.95 and the book is $31.99; another popular option is Kaplan's SAT classroom prep for $699, or if on a budget, its online course is $299.
"Testing is a big money-making industry at this point. The SAT is inherently flawed," says Okaikor Aryee-Price, who taught eleventh grade for 11 years and now teaches seventh grade while pursuing a doctorate in Instructional Design. "Standardized tests came out of the eugenics movement, to say that people of color were not as intelligent as whites. They're not used the same way anymore, but they still test the same things. These access gaps were intentionally created."
Even post-secondary institutions have begun to wonder whether the SAT is worth their time. According to a list compiled by the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, more than 800 colleges and universities have gone "test-optional" or "test-flexible" (meaning it is either only partially counts toward admissions considerations, or not at all). The list includes highly ranked institutions such as New York University, American University, and the University of Texas at Austin.
However, the majority of colleges and universities require SAT scores (or its competitor, the ACT) as part of the application. Many schools (and organizations) also use these scores as thresholds for awarding grants and scholarships.
Still, College Board says the redesign is in direct response to these and other questions and criticisms.
For starters, they're expanding two existing programs that provide personalized college information packets, along with four college application fee waivers, to high-achieving low-income students. The organization will also make free test-prep programs and practice materials available for all students.
"Our members, including admission officers, school counselors, teachers, and students, have called on us to change the SAT and go beyond assessment to deliver opportunity," the College Board explained on its website. "Our goal is to support college readiness and success for more students and to make sure that those who are prepared take full advantage of the opportunities they've earned through their hard work."
According to College Board data, African Americans have consistently had the lowest average score on the essay portion since 2005, when it was added to the test. The new SAT makes the essay portion optional. Students will still have to write the essay – it simply may or may not count toward their score, depending on the discretions of their intended colleges, and their high school district.
According to Patte Barth, director of the Center for Public Education for the National School Boards Association, the essay option will likely get mixed reviews.
"School systems right now are already under pressure anyway with all these changes related to implementing (K-12) Common Core standards," she explains, adding that 45 states and the District of Columbia are mired in the curriculum transition.
"To the degree that the SAT is better able to align to what high schools are teaching, alleviates one issue – because if the curriculum teaches on thing and then teachers have to stop to teach another thing for this test it is frustrating."
The essay section is designed to more closely resemble actual high school and college assignments, and will now be based on analyzing a reading passage. The prompt itself will be disclosed to students in advance and will remain constant from exam to exam; only the reading material will change each time the test is taken.
The essay section was changed and made optional for two reasons: There is no data to suggest that one essay is predictive of college success; and because there was no consensus among college admissions officers regarding the value of the essay.
Other changes to the test include eliminating questions on flowery "SAT vocabulary words;" abandoning point deductions for incorrect answers; and shrinking the focus of math sections to more common branches (i.e. algebra and word problem-solving).
"Because a test alone can't change student outcomes, assessments such as the SAT must be integrated with rigorous classroom instruction, and through their results, propel students to greater opportunities," a statement reads. "The redesigned SAT will ask students to apply a deep understanding of the few skills and content areas most important for college and career readiness. The questions will be more familiar to students because they'll be modeled on the work of the best classroom teachers."
Not everyone is convinced.
"It all sounds like double-talk to me," says Bernard Hamilton, president of the National Alliance of Black School Educators.
"We want to make college more accessible, so let's make a new test so we can eliminate students based on the test? If a state measures student results in your district based on the test, then schools will change their curriculum to reflect that test, since they are being evaluated on it. The test goes from being a predictor of college success...to being used outside of why it was created."
The new SAT will be administered for the first time in 2016, as today's high-school freshmen begin preparing for college.
Cooper said, "I'm positively optimistic that the redesign will help many students (gain access), but I want to make sure they are addressing the inherent cultural, racial, and income bias that has long been a staple of the SAT."