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As the SAT evolves, so do opinions on its value

March 8, 2016 at 8:26 PM EDT
On Saturday, college hopefuls took a brand new SAT, marking the first time in over a decade the test curriculum has undergone major changes. While scores will still be submitted with many an application, there is growing skepticism of their value as predictors of college success. April Brown of the American Graduate program reports.
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BY KENYA DOWNS

Thousands of high school students piled into test centers early March as the first group to take the new, revamped SAT. The College Board, which administers the test, promises a more comprehensive, modern evaluation of potential college success. However, as April Brown reports, this new initiative isn’t without controversy and push back. That’s to be expected of a national college-readiness assessment with a unique evolution.

The SAT has a mysterious past:

According to PBS’s Frontline, the early days of the SAT had little to do with college prep at all. In fact, it was more about staffing the U.S. military with intellectually sound personnel. The origins of the SAT date back to World War I when Robert Yerkes, an I.Q. test professional, convinced the U.S. Army to test new recruits. Originally called Army Alpha, it was the first I.Q. test to be administered to the masses. Yerkes’ assistant, Carl Brigham, further developed Army Alpha to make it harder and eventually worked with colleges to adapt the test for all would-be college students and scholarship seekers.

So why is it mysterious? The College Board will neither confirm nor deny this version of the SAT’s origins. Here’s what their senior vice president did say:

“Well, the early days of psychometrics was certainly driven by this concept of aptitude and recognizing individuals who had the aptitude to do well. This worked very well, particularly for those students attending secondary schools that were not well-known to colleges and universities in being able to identify students that have the potential to be successful at college.”

– James Montoya, senior vice president at College Board

Here’s where the SAT stands now:

There are many changes in the new version of the SAT, including a focus on content students are more likely to find in college and adult life. That includes streamlined sections, a more contemporary vocabulary test and no more penalties for guessing.

Many test-prep experts say the new SAT now looks more like its competitor, the ACT, which more students have opted to take in recent years. And it’s no coincidence. The SAT is losing market share to the ACT and has come under fire not only for its expense, but access. One of the many criticisms of the SAT is that the test creates a disadvantage for women, minorities and the poor who are less likely to afford the costly prep courses. The College Board aimed to tackle this by partnering with the Khan Academy, a online educational service, to offer free test-prep.

But just days before the new test was administered, several would-be test-takers were uninvited. The College Board sent a letter to some who signed up saying they’ve been bumped until May. The board cited a “new security measure,” but most of those uninvited guests are actually test-prep professionals. Patrick Bock, a professional tutor who’s taken older versions of the SAT more than a dozen times, believes it was tactical. “They don’t want really bad press from experts who understand testing,” he said. “[Test-prep experts] skewer the tests for questions that aren’t quite where they need to be.”

Does the SAT have a viable future?

Some colleges are completely opting out of the SAT and ACT as a requirement for admission altogether. The premise isn’t entirely new. According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, more than 850 colleges and universities nationwide are now test-optional. Bates College first became test-optional in 1984 and Wake Forest University was the first major school to ditch test requirements in 2008.

Research has shown that standardized tests like the ACT and SAT aren’t viable indicators of college readiness or success, and that going test-optional boosts student diversity. So now more schools are following suit. The University of Delaware announced in February that their admissions will become test-optional for in-state students beginning in the fall and George Washington University became the largest institution to jump on board last year. Vice provost Laurie Koehler said they made the decision in order to improve diversity. And so far it’s worked:

Applications to George Washington University Since Going Test-Optional

Overall applications up 28%

Minority applicants up 30%

First-generation applicants up 35%

Male applicants up 23%

Female applicants up 32%

 

“We did see more than 28 percent increase in our applications,” she said. “But what was striking was the numbers of first generation students, or underrepresented, multicultural students who submitted applications – nearly 1,100 more in each of those populations.”

The numbers are still preliminary and don’t indicate how many of those new applicants were actually accepted. Still, even with the College Board’s push to improve formatting, access and affordability, a spike in diverse applicants to test-optional schools could spell trouble for the SAT and its competitor the ACT in the future.


Read the full transcript below:

GWEN IFILL: This past Saturday, high school students preparing for college took a brand-new SAT test, with the first major changes in more than a decade. The scores will be part of many college applications, but not all.

April Brown reports for our latest Tuesday evening Making the Grade series. It’s part of Public Media’s American Graduate Project.

PATRICK BOCK, CEO, Specifix Prep: So, we’re going to do quadratics today. We’re going to start quadratics anyway.

APRIL BROWN: For decades, many students like junior Carson Goettlicher of Annandale, Virginia, have set aside extra time preparing for a pre-college ritual, taking the ACT or the SAT test, or both. Carson has been studying with tutor Patrick Bock for the new SAT, the first major changes to the test since 2005.

CARSON GOETTLICHER, SAT Test Taker: We took a pretest in the SAT class which was based off the old one. And I did pretty well on that, so I — then I thought about how I’m taking the new one, and I’m like, I’m going to do terrible now.

APRIL BROWN: There are many changes to the new version, including a focus on materials students are likely to find in college and careers. Some test prep professionals believe it now looks more like the ACT, which more students have taken in recent years, than the SAT.

Anyone who has taken the old SAT might remember the arcane vocabulary that even the test creators admit engendered prodigious vexation. Those words are now gone, as is the penalty for guessing. The top score on the test is again 1,600. The essay is now optional.

The test designers say the overhaul is meant to keep the SAT relevant.

JAMES MONTOYA, Senior Vice President, College Board: The old test was working, but this is a better test.

APRIL BROWN: James Montoya is a senior vice president at the College Board, which oversees the SATs.

JAMES MONTOYA: We focus on those skills that are most important, and evidence-based reading and writing is a great example. If we look at mathematics, one of the things that we look at, the importance of algebraic equations.

APRIL BROWN: Montoya says the test is also more closely aligned to what students are learning in school.

Carson Goettlicher is take the SAT because the colleges she’s applying to require it, but since the 1970s, a growing number of colleges and universities have made their admissions test optional.

Bates College, a liberal arts school in Maine, went test-optional in 1984. And North Carolina’s Wake Forest became one of the first major universities to do so in 2008. Last year, George Washington University in Washington, D.C., became one of the largest institutions in the country not requiring SAT or ACT scores during the application process.

George Washington vice provost Laurie Coaler says test-optional was part of a plan to help improve diversity because studies have revealed first-generation college-goers, as well as minority and female students, are more likely to apply if they don’t have to provide standardized test scores.

LAURIE KOEHLER, Vice Provost, George Washington University: We did see a more than 28 percent increase in our applications, but what was striking was the numbers of first-generation students, of under-represented multicultural students who submitted applications, nearly 1,100 more in each of those populations.

APRIL BROWN: But before the decision was made, Koehler says, G.W. looked at research from Bates and consulted officials at Wake Forest about why standardized test results may not be the best predictor of college success.

They found looking at high school work holistically and a student’s grade point average are better indicators.

LAURIE KOEHLER: If you have earned C’s in high school, and even if you test really well, you’re probably going to have the work habits that are going to earn you C’s in college.

ROBERT SCHAEFFER, National Center for Fair and Open Testing: The changes to the SAT are largely cosmetic. They make it a little bit more consumer-friendly, but they don’t deal with any of the fundamentally flawed characteristics of the test.

APRIL BROWN: Robert Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing says there are now more than 850 colleges and universities nationwide on the test-optional bandwagon.

ROBERT SCHAEFFER: It remains a weak predictor of how well a student will do in college. It’s biased in many ways, and it’s susceptible to high-priced coaching.

APRIL BROWN: The coaching he refers to can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars an hour. Carson Goettlicher found her SAT tutor Patrick Bock through her school. It’s something Carson’s mother, Debbie, is thankful for.

DEBBIE GOETTLICHER, Carson’s Mother: I’m trying to prepare my kids for their future. And, unfortunately, they have to take this test in order for them to be successful. So, yes, I’m going to give them every tool I can. We were fortunate that the school actually offered the program and made it affordable for us, because it can get quite expensive.

MAN: The SAT is changing in March 2016. Which SAT do you want to practice for?

APRIL BROWN: In anticipation of the new SAT, the College Board partnered with Khan Academy, a nonprofit online educational service, to provide free test prep.

Founder Sal Khan says it’s a way to level the playing field for those who may not be able to afford extra help.

SAL KHAN, Founder, Khan Academy: The software in Khan Academy will immediately know where you are strong and where you are weak, so it can really do weak-point training. So, that’s one option. But the number one thing is not to pull an all-nighter the night before the exam.

APRIL BROWN: Tutor Patrick Bock and others have pointed out the new SAT comes at a time when the test has been losing market share to competitor ACT.

PATRICK BOCK: They can say that test changes are motivated by sort of closer alignment with state standards or sort of more rigorous analytics into the test, but it’s purely a money thing, right? Like, if you’re losing students every single year, you want to make that up.

APRIL BROWN: Nevertheless, on Saturday, tens of thousands of high school students around the country woke up early to take the new SAT.

JACQUEZ LYKES, SAT Test Taker: Honestly, I came in not knowing that it was a different test.

APRIL BROWN: Jacquez Lykes is a senior and took the test in Fairfax County, Virginia.

Have you taken the SAT before?

JACQUEZ LYKES: Yes. I took it like three weeks ago.

APRIL BROWN: What was different on this new SAT vs. the old one you took?

JACQUEZ LYKES: The other version had 10 sections, and it felt like you were in the class for, like, hours or whatnot, and this one only had four, which was, like, a major relief.

APRIL BROWN: Junior Kayla Ramsay also took it.

Do you feel like you were prepared for this?

KAYLA RAMSAY, SAT Test Taker: I do. Like, I did a lot of studying and just recalling stuff from freshman year, sophomore year.

APRIL BROWN: And we caught up with Carson Goettlicher after she finished.

CARSON GOETTLICHER: I’m relieved. I guess it felt like pretty much like any other standardized test, other than the fact that there’s — this is basically our future.

APRIL BROWN: Carson is also taking the ACT next month and is planning to take the new SAT again in May.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m April Brown in Fairfax County, Virginia.

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