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The key problem the SAT changes won’t fix

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Big changes are coming (again) to the SAT, the once almighty college admissions test that was overtaken in popularity by the ACT.

The essay portion of the exam, added in 2005 with great fanfare as a crucial new part of the exam, is now being made optional, because apparently, it wasn’t all that crucial after all.

And those silly vocabulary words that nobody ever needed to know except for the SAT (and weren’t on the ACT) are being dumped.

Students will also no longer lose a quarter point for every wrong answer to multiple-choice questions (just as they don’t on the ACT). 

The College Board doth protest, but doesn’t it sound like the SAT is trying to be more like the ACT?

In this story about the SAT changes, my colleague Nick Anderson quoted Shirley Ort, a top financial aid official at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and vice chair of the College Board’s governing board, as saying:

“We’re not just chasing market share here, I can assure you that. We want the SAT to be more than just an event that takes place in a test center. We think it can serve as a catalyst for student engagement.”

Sure thing.

Considering that the ACT has long been seen as the exam that covers high school curriculum better and has less “tricks” than the SAT, this could be perceived as a useful turn of events. Still, a big problem for the College Board remains: The changes to the SAT aren’t likely to make it any more of an accurate predictor of how well students will do in college than it was before.  And before, it wasn’t any good at it at all. It wasn’t predictive of anything.

The changes won’t take away from the fact that no single standardized test score should be used for a high-stakes decisions involving young students — not for student promotion from grade to grade, high school graduation, etc. Some kids are simply better taking tests than others, some kids are sick when they take them, and historically, the scores are as reflective of the socio-economic divide in the country than they are of anything. Kids who live in poverty do worse than kids who don’t.

The new test won’t change any of that, according to Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), a nonprofit group dedicated to ending the misuse of standardized test scores. It also won’t be any “less susceptible” to coaching by tutoring companies, he said.

As part of its SAT changes, the College Board also said that it was making SAT test prep free for all students. Is that the end of the multimillion-dollar test prep industry? Not likely. There already are free test prep options, and many families won’t think they are getting good test prep unless they pay a lot of money for it.

FairTest maintains an ever-growing list of more than 800 colleges and universities that don’t require ACT or SAT scores. Research shows that test-option admissions don’t hurt colleges a bit in their admissions processes and may help expand diversity and academic quality, Schaeffer said, adding:

“The truth is no one needs the SAT, either ‘old’ or ‘new.’”