Changes to the SAT and why we should care


When I took the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), back in *undisclosed date here,* it was all about the bubble sheets. There was no writing section. There was only the sealed paper test and my secret fear that when I showed up to take the test, all of my pencils would be Number 3 pencils.

But apparently the world and testing standards moved on after I finished high school, and the test changed. In 2005, the College Board – the organization that oversees and administers the SAT—altered the test, changing its format to include a lengthy essay portion, which increased the scoring of the exam from 1,600 to 2,400.

Then last week, the College Board announced that the SAT would undergo another overhaul. One of the biggest differences is that the essay will no longer be a mandatory. (It will remain an option on the test, however.) They will also do away with those infamous “SAT words,” like “depreciatory” and “membranous,” in favor of words that are more commonly used in the college classroom, such as “empirical” and “synthesis.”

The change in the SAT is likely due to a number of factors, among them the fact that the SATs are being outflanked by the ACTs. But the more interesting story, so far as I’m concerned, has to do with David Coleman, the president of the College Board, who studied many critiques and criticisms of the test, and started his tenure as president prepared to make some major changes to the test.

Among the problems with the test is the fact that wealthy, white kids generally have an edge over non-weathy, non-white kids. The “standard” in “standardized test” is one that is white and well-off, or at least middle class.

This is problem—one that it is not entirely clear the current round of changes in the SAT will actually remedy. But it is encouraging, at least, that the College Board is making an effort.

Because here’s the thing. The SAT (and the plethora of standardized testing that makes up education these days) is not just about this one test. It is about access. SAT scores don’t always determine admission to college, but they are often used to determine scholarships. Standardized test scores may not determine whether or not a student advances to the next grade, but they can be used to determine which schools get extra funding. The scores on standardized tests act as points of entry to quality and affordable education. And when those standardized tests reinforce existing inequities in race and socioeconomic status, they—almost by default—also perpetuate the inequalities.

It has been well-documented that education is a key factor in social mobility. Children from just about all backgrounds start out as equals in ability and potential, but as opportunities are opened up or closed off for children based on their zip-code or their parents’ tax bracket, the achievement gap gets wider and wider.

The changes to the SAT are really not going to help high school students who have spent their entire childhood closed off from opportunities that wealthier students had access to. But the change might be a step in the right direction, recognizing that every student deserves the right to educational opportunities without being held back through virtue of who their parents are or where they happened to be born.

Image: Flickr photo cc Jeff Weese