Smoke, Mirrors and the SAT

Opinion by Jason Willick
March 10, 2014, 11:40 p.m.

Last week, hundreds of education professionals gathered in an auditorium in Austin, Texas, to watch as David Coleman—president of the College Board and arguably the most powerful man in American education—unveiled sweeping changes to the SAT exam.

Coleman’s polished, hour-long address, titled “Delivering Opportunity,” was not what you would expect from an education policy wonk. Citing persistent inequalities in American education, Coleman made soaring appeals to justice and opportunity with all the populist fervor of an Elizabeth Warren campaign rally. At one point he called the decorated historian Robert Caro to the podium to read a moving passage about Lyndon B. Johnson’s initiatives to ameliorate poverty in the rural South.

The message was clear: The SAT as currently designed is an elitist exam, testing “obscure” vocabulary words and “tricky” math problems that are irrelevant to college success, and reinforcing “privilege, rather than merit.” The new exam will therefore feature more elementary vocabulary and more straightforward math, among other changes designed to make the SAT less like an aptitude test and more similar to high-school coursework. The College Board’s euphemisms don’t obscure the fact that they intend to roll out an easier test. As one critic observed, “when the going gets tough, well, why not just make the going easier?”

So far, the media has gone all-in for Coleman. A widely circulated New York Times Magazine story waxed grandiose about the new SAT, suggesting that it will level the academic playing field, propel students out of poverty and deal a devastating blow to the test-prep industry that helps rich students raise their scores.

All of this sounds well and good. Equality of opportunity—a defining feature of our national identity since de Tocqueville—is clearly not a reality for millions of American high school students. But when you look past the College Board’s smoke and mirrors, it is unclear how the new SAT is supposed to address this.

Coleman insists that “unequal test prep access is a problem,” and he’s right. But it’s not a huge problem—most studies show that even the most expensive courses only raise scores by 15 points per 800-point section, on average. Coleman and the College Board are adamant that the new test will be even more difficult to “game,” but don’t provide any statistical evidence for this claim. If anything, many of the changes—narrowing the scope of the vocabulary tested, making math questions more predictable and less abstract, releasing the essay prompt (but not the source material) in advance—would seem to give an even greater advantage to students who have experienced tutors at their disposal.

It is also doubtful that the College Board’s efforts to “align” the test material with high-school coursework will level the playing field in any meaningful way. After all, the roots of educational inequality lie with schools, teachers and parents. Students with educated parents who attend well-funded schools with top teachers will have no problem succeeding at a test based strictly on high-school curricula. It might even be the case that basing questions off of classroom instruction, rather than cognitive ability, will further tip the scales against students who never had high-quality teachers or a classroom environment conducive to learning.

The College Board’s claim that the new SAT will be a better predictor of college performance—offered, once again, without much in the way of evidence—should also be viewed with skepticism. The existing SAT is already nearly as good a predictor of a student’s college performance as is the entire high-school GPA, an impressive feat for a three-hour test. And despite the fashionable idea that raw talent doesn’t matter, studies show that SAT scores are linked to indicators of extraordinary achievement—like the likelihood a person will secure a patent, publish a literary work or earn a doctorate—that are relevant to college admissions decisions.

Some of the initiatives Coleman announced, such as the College Board’s partnership with Khan Academy to make free test prep available to all and the expansion of the College Board’s voucher program for low-income students, should be applauded. But the College Board has irresponsibly oversold the benefits of the changes to the test itself.

At a time when high school grading standards are eroding and fewer incoming college freshmen are prepared to handle the course material, a demanding standardized testing regime is more important than ever. We need a harder SAT, not an easier one.

Contact Jason Willick at [email protected].

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