History of Test Prep: New SAT, old problems

(The Brown Daily Herald) By Ameer Malik —


I apologize in advance for bringing up the SAT. For quite a few students, including myself, that acronym unearths memories of thick books and No. 2 pencils that are better left buried. But just because many of us here at Brown have already taken the test doesn’t mean that we should forget about it altogether. Many of our younger friends and family members planning to apply to colleges are currently in the process of studying for the SAT. And it upsets me to know that our friends are going to face a new set of difficulties that we were just lucky enough to avoid.

The College Board debuted a new version of the SAT in March, designed to address some key critiques of the old format. In particular, the test was supposed to correspond more closely with Common Core benchmarks and provide a more equitable assessment for students from different backgrounds. But according to some recent articles, including a Reuters report from last month, the design of the new SAT is defective.  The math sections of the test include text-heavy word problems, which can pose unnecessary difficulties for English language learners, international students and students with undiagnosed dyslexia or learning disabilities. According to the report, the College Board discovered this flaw after running trials and planned to fix it but never actually did. So instead of bridging the gap and helping more students succeed, the new SAT faces many of the same problems as the old one. While reports indicate that the verbal section may now be fairer for previously disadvantaged test takers, the inequities in the math section may have been exacerbated.

How could this have happened? The Reuters report explains that there was a short deadline on the new design of the test, which was partly motivated by the fact that the ACT, a rival standardized test, was gaining in popularity. The redesign was so hasty that the College Board didn’t have enough math problems to replace the defective ones, according to a former College Board employee.

This sheds light on a sad truth about the SAT, a test that has become synonymous with the college admission process: It’s deeply flawed. This major error in the SAT is just one more problem with a test that has had numerous shortcomings. A 2014 College Board report that surveyed college-bound seniors found that higher household incomes were related to higher median scores on each section. Students who can afford tutoring services and study guides have a great advantage over students who cannot afford those resources. In addition, a 2002 report from Whitman College shows that the “SAT tends to show race and class bias.”

Despite these problems, the SAT can’t be completely thrown out. It seems like a necessary metric in the college application process. Standardization through the SAT is useful for assessing students from different school districts. Moreover, as Charles Lane explains in an op-ed for the Washington Post, a consistent metric is necessary for college admission because it establishes some degree of transparency. Lane points out that standardized tests have not always and perhaps do not need to work against upward mobility for historically marginalized groups. For example, he argues that the SAT helped more Jewish students get into Ivy League schools after they had been severely discriminated against in the admission process during the first half of the 1900s.

Though we can’t totally get rid of the SAT, there are other ways we can improve college admission. Colleges should put less weight on the SAT and acknowledge its flaws at the outset, understanding that it is one imperfect metric among many. Brown’s decision to make the writing section of the redesigned SAT optional was a step in the right direction. But to truly improve the admission process, we have to increase the quality and expand the availability of educational resources so that students with diverse backgrounds can get into college. This could involve colleges improving their financial aid packages and strengthening ties with high school guidance counselors. School systems should also be improved so that all students have access to a great education and are not at a disadvantage when applying to college.

Ultimately, we need to realize that the SAT is just one part of a deeply flawed system that favors certain applicants to college over others. But if we acknowledge the problems and focus our best efforts and energies, we can improve both the SAT and the system of which it is a part for tomorrow’s students.