TOPICS > Education

College Board announces SAT overhaul to address inequality, boost relevance

March 5, 2014 at 6:13 PM EST
The College Board announced a partial overhaul of the SAT, slated to take effect in the spring of 2016, which will eliminate the mandatory essay, revert to a top score of 1600 and create new fee waivers for lower-income students, among other changes. Judy Woodruff turns to special correspondent for education John Merrow to examine the measures and what they mean for students.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The SAT, long a subject of great debate, is about to undergo some big changes. The College Board, which administers the exam, taken by high school students, announced a partial overhaul that will take effect in the spring of 2016.

The changes include: eliminating a mandatory essay and making it optional. The SAT will revert to a top score of 1,600, instead of 2,400, as is the case now. It also ends penalties for guessing incorrectly. And it will make the vocabulary testing less arcane. There will be new fee waivers for lower-income students too.

College Board president David Coleman said he was concerned the SAT, and the testing mania surrounding it, was putting an even bigger burden on disadvantaged students.

DAVID COLEMAN, President, College Board: We must confront the inequalities that now surround assessment, such as costly test preparation. It is time for the College Board to say in a clear voice the culture and practice of test preparation that now surrounds admissions exams drives the perception of inequality and injustice in our country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For a closer look at the changes and the reason behind it, we turn to special correspondent for education, John Merrow.

John, welcome to the program.

JOHN MERROW: Hey, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, first of all, how big a change is — big a deal is this that they’re making these changes?

JOHN MERROW: I think it’s a big deal.

The changes you mentioned, students will applaud several of them, getting rid of the obscure vocabulary words, using propitious in favor of self-deprecating. They will be in favor of that. They like getting rid of the penalty for guessing and they, I suspect, will like getting rid of a mandatory essay.

The older folks will like going back to 1,600, instead of 2,400. There’s a search comfort level with that number 1,600. It’s kind of like the New Coke. That was an experiment that didn’t work. And I think everyone will applaud the fee waiver for certain students, for low-income students, to make it easier for them to use the SAT.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So when the president of the College Board says — I saw he said, among other things, the test should offer worthy challenges, not artificial obstacles, what was he saying?

JOHN MERROW: Well, I think he wants to make the test more relevant, to make the SAT more relevant, so that, in the questions, the language part of it, the students will be reading source doctors, Letter From a Birmingham Jail, and asked to make some judgments and find some evidence.

So, at least in theory, that’s not going to be as susceptible to test prep. Whether it turns out that way, I would suspend judgment on that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it possible to say by looking at these changes what’s going to be tested in each student?

JOHN MERROW: Well, what Mr. Coleman wants is that this will connect more closely to the high school curriculum, which is, of course, itself being changed.

And in the clip you played and in parts — other parts of his speech, he went after test prep, saying that this is a source of inequality, that wealthy families can pay for test prep, and that gives them an unfair advantage. And you didn’t mention that there’s an alliance that he’s formed with Sal Khan, the founder of the Khan Academy, with — basically with free prep lessons, so can still get ready for the SAT. They just won’t have to spend all that money. That’s his hope.

I’m a little bit skeptical about that. I think, if he is trying to drive a stake through the heart of the test prep industry, good luck with that. They’re smart people. And, there I would predict that their business will actually improve because they will be able to say, hey, there’s a new SAT, we can help you get ready for it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When he says he’s concerned about inequality, the fact that students who are disadvantaged have been — students who come from a low-income background, for example, may be disadvantaged, do you see these changes addressing that?

JOHN MERROW: It may well be that the content — the different content of the SAT will work to the advantage of students who tend to business, who do their work, and that shouldn’t be determined by your income level.

This test has almost always been a better predictor of your parents’ income and education than of how well you might do as a freshman. He acknowledges that. I think — I think what’s happening — part of what’s happening here, Judy is — is that the College Board is paying attention to market share.

Now, it’s a direct competitor of another test called the ACT. And just two years ago, the ACT surpassed the SAT. More kids took the ACT than the SAT. And this matters, because these are both businesses. And just like the restaurant, they need customers. And even more upsetting, I think, for the SAT is that a number of states have embraced the ACT.

Kentucky will use the ACT as a measure of school quality. I don’t know any state uses the SAT. Perhaps there are. But there are certainly, I believe, 13 to 14 states now rely on the ACT, and that has to be a little bit scary for the folks at the SAT.

So I think, you know, that’s part of what’s driving this. It’s — they’re losing market share.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And remind us, in thumbnail, what is the difference between the two tests?

JOHN MERROW: Well, the ACT has a science section. The SAT doesn’t.

The ACT is generally seen as being much more closely aligned with high school curriculum, much more a test of what the kids learned, more of an achievement test, if you will. SAT, what does the A. stand for? At one point, it was the Scholastic Aptitude Test, then the Scholastic Achievement Test. Some say it’s Scholastic Advantage Test. It’s now known as the SAT, just like KFC used to be Kentucky Fried Chicken.

So, I think the ACT is seen by more people as just a more reliable test. And Mr. Coleman is moving aggressively to counteract that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you started out by making a distinction between how students will see this and how some adults will see it. And, I mean, just finally, if you’re a student and if you’re a parent or an educator, how do you view — what do you make of this change?

JOHN MERROW: Well, you know, the other part of this, Judy, is that about 800 colleges no longer require either of these tests. So, that’s another factor in what’s going on here.

Mr. Coleman is moving to say this — this SAT matters. If he’s losing market share to the ACT and 800-plus colleges no longer require the SAT or the ACT, he’s moving aggressively to try to make that happen.

Now, I talked to Nick Lemann, who knows more about this than just about anyone, the author of “The Big Test.”  And he said that, on balance, these are positive changes, these are a good thing. We will see. I think the — I kind of like using words like propitious.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHN MERROW: But it shouldn’t be a guessing game that you study for. So, using words that are words we use in the real world, that makes a lot of sense.

So, I think probably Nick Lemann is right that a lot of these changes are good. But don’t forget that the underlying motive, I think, is a market share — a market share one.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Special correspondent for education John Merrow, thank you.

JOHN MERROW: Thank you, Judy.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.