An Educator's Response to the New SAT

Spring 2014


There is much buzz in the world of education about the numerous changes, seemingly taking place all at once, even though much planning has gone on in preparation for these various reforms in learning. One change that will impact many students is the revision of the SAT. Today students may choose between taking the SAT or the ACT as one of the required variables for college acceptance. Yet, for some students neither test will be necessary since 850 colleges and universities have now made the test optional. It is their collective belief that high school grades, not test scores, are the best predictor of college success. Nonetheless, many students (anyone presently in Grade 8 or lower) may take the new SAT scheduled to appear in the spring of 2016. For specifics about the changes and the reasons for them, you may want to read the New York Times article, "The Story Behind the SAT Overhaul" by Todd Balf.

Below, I have summarized another article I find rather compelling with a different perspective to the topic. Anthony P. Carnevale, Director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, shares his opinions about the SAT, past, present, and future in his recent article, "5 Myths About the SAT" which appeared in The Washington Post shortly after the College Board announced changes to the test.

  1. The SAT is the best measure we have for assessing if a student is ready for –and can succeed in- college. The College Board maintains that the SAT "has a proven track record as a fair and valid predictor of first-year college success." However, reliable studies contradict that belief. While it shows a higher percent of variation when combined with the high school GPA, plus scores on AP exams, and SAT Subject Tests, when you look beyond first-year GPA and try to predict later grades and graduation rates, the SAT fares even worse.
  2. The SAT has helped establish a national meritocracy. A hundred years ago, the SAT was originally adopted by Harvard and other colleges in an effort to gauge natural ability and to make access to their schools less dependent on wealth, family connections, and elite prep-school education. However, research shows the SAT does not recognize merit. Students who will do well on the test and go to the best colleges are mostly settled before students sit down to take the test. Those students are typically linked to having the right parents who have the right income and, more important, the right education level.
  3. Test-prep courses substantially improve scores. Independent studies show that the effect of test preparation on SAT performance is marginal, boosting scores by 30 points on average. However, the College Board announced a partnership with the Khan Academy to provide free test prep. This effort is intended to provide test preparation to those families who can’t afford pre-test programs. Free test prep may calms some anxious parents, but it’s not likely to have much effect on scores.
  4. The SAT can predict career success. Presently consulting firms, software companies, and investment banks are among the employers who ask job candidates to dig up their SAT scores, according to a report in February in the Wall Street Journal. Yet, according to the Journal’s article, the test does not do a good job of measuring "whether someone has the raw brain power required to the job." One criterion it overlooks is conscientiousness which drives professional success. Another more important predictor is the amount of education you receive.
  5. The changes planned for 2016 will bring a 20th-century test into the 21st century. The College Board hopes that redesigning the test will make it more relevant-at a time when some colleges have stopped requiring the SAT and in the face of competition from the ACT and the new Common Core assessments. But aligning the SAT with Common Core standards, reducing the obscure vocabulary, and narrowing the focus of the math section, while positive changes, won’t reverse the declining importance of the SAT in the American education system.

An assessment truly fit for the 21st century would test a broader array of knowledge, skills, and abilities. Given the increasing importance of science, technology, and engineering, for instance, a single science passage in the reading section, as is planned for the new SAT, is hardly enough. A full science section, as the ACT has, would be more appropriate.

Why should we rely on an imperfect proxy of “aptitude” when other metrics, such as the Common Core subject tests, can tell us the real gaps in students’ understanding?