Should the SAT still matter after all these years? Why some colleges are bringing it back

Should the SAT still matter after all these years? Why some colleges are bringing it back

Generations of American teenagers have taken the SAT, the blood-pressure-raising multi-hour exam they’re told can make or break their academic future.

The nation’s longest-running standardized college admissions test, the SAT has faced decades of controversy over bias and criticism for reducing prospective college students to test scores. It has also been criticized as part of the high barriers to entry into America’s so-called meritocracy.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, as dozens of the nation’s most prestigious universities suspend their standardized testing requirements, some are hoping for a new era of more equitable college admissions.

But this year, many of these institutions have conducted surveys on their test selection policies. At the same time, at least 1,825 US colleges and universities, or more than 80% of four-year schools, will still not require the test for 2025 admissions, according to FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing.

The split in admissions policy after the pandemic has reignited the debate over the SAT requirement.

To test, or not to test?
Criticism has dogged the SAT for years. The exam, which originally stood for “Scholastic Aptitude Test,” was developed in the 1920s by Princeton-based eugenicist Carl Brigham, who believed immigration was diluting America’s intelligence and adapted a US Army mental test to determine whether similar exams can measure the natural intelligence of students. . (Brigham retracted some of his views years later.)

The College Board, the education nonprofit that designs and administers the exam, told CNN that the SAT has been “completely overhauled” since the 1920s and now measures how well students have learned specific content, not inherent abilities.

But the test’s legacy – rife with racism and classism – has raised questions about the need for high-stakes testing at all. The National Education Association has stated that the SAT, and its counterpart the ACT, can be too much of a factor in the college admissions process.

“It is important that we do not rely too much on them because they are not holistic. They are one image of a day and it can determine whether you get into college or not,” NEA Policy Director Daaiyah Bilal-Threats told CNN.

Most colleges do not plan to restart their pre-pandemic testing requirements.

“Test-choice policies continue to dominate at national universities, state flagships, and selective liberal arts colleges because they typically produce more applicants, academically stronger applicants and more diversity,” FairTest Executive Director Harry Feder said in a February statement. after several Ivy League schools announced that they would reintroduce their testing requirements. The strong emphasis on high SAT scores has also fueled the rise of the lucrative test prep industry in the United States, which is estimated to grow about 7% to nearly $50 billion by 2027, according to an October 2023 report from market researcher Technavio.

Discrepancies with standardized testing seem to be symptomatic of the inequity endemic to the education system. Some experts point out that eliminating the SAT as a component of admissions, as most universities did at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, does little to redress systemic inequality. In fact, it can bring the difference into sharper focus.

Wealthier students may have access to prestigious internships, schools with better-funded clubs and sports, and music and art programs — all elements of a classic college application.

“(Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds) don’t have any of these fancy extracurriculars. They don’t play in fancy jazz bands. They don’t do fancy internships. They are not working as volunteers in Guatemala. But some of them will be very capable students,” said Daniel Koretz, a testing policy expert at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He said the question is: How do schools find these students?

According to Koretz, the longevity of the SAT can be attributed to its effectiveness in predicting student performance in college.

A study published in January by Harvard’s Opportunity Insights center found that standardized tests are a more effective predictor of performance than high school grades.

Critically, the study also found that students from different socioeconomic backgrounds a with the same test scores have “nearly similar” college GPAs.

A few weeks after the study was released, several schools that had been test-optional for nearly four years officially reversed their stance. Yale and Dartmouth announced in February they were reinstating the test requirement and were soon joined by private and public institutions, including Brown, Georgetown, Harvard, the University of Florida and the University of Texas at Austin.

“The SAT/ACTs can be particularly helpful in identifying students from underresourced backgrounds who will succeed at Dartmouth but may be missed in a test-optional environment,” Dartmouth wrote in a statement in February.

“With many high school GPAs around 4.0 … SAT or ACT scores are proven differentiators that are in the best interest of every student and the University,” UT Austin said in March.

Still need standardized tests
Education experts who spoke to CNN say the SAT is necessary because there is no “standard” American education.

Individual schools may have different grading criteria. Some schools weigh grade point averages differently. A+ in AP classes in one district equals a 4.0 GPA. In others, it can be 5.0, 4.5 or 4.2.

Even within the same school and subject, some teachers may judge more or less leniently than others.

College admissions officers don’t have the ability to account for all these minute discrepancies, experts told CNN, so standardized tests are likely to remain unless US education becomes standardized in other ways.

“Anytime you have a system the size of ours and if there isn’t that kind of standardization in the K-12 system, schools are going to find value in finding ways to compare students. It’s not necessarily the SAT, but something standardized like that,” said Ethan Hutt, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Education.

Democratizing education
This lack of standardization dates back to the early days of US education. Throughout the 1800s, there was little tracking of student achievement, and grades and written tests were not common.

“In the 19th century, schools … would gather parents and townspeople, and basically the teacher would put on an exhibition with the class,” Hutt said. “They will ask the students questions and read what (they have learned).”

Oral exams were common until 1845, when educational reformer and Massachusetts Board of Education Secretary Horace Mann instituted written tests to measure student learning throughout Boston-area public schools.

College education was extremely rare, as the system was designed to favor wealthy white males funneled from elite private schools in the Northeast to prestigious private universities also in the Northeast.

“Often, it will consist of either colleges accrediting certain high schools and saying, ‘OK, any graduate of (Phillips Exeter Academy) is automatically granted admission to Harvard,’ or they will send professors to do examinations at individual schools, ” said Hutt.

First administered in 1926, the SAT was an attempt to broaden the pool of university applicants.

Three important legislative events indirectly expanded the influence of the SAT. First, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the GI Bill, provided funds for returning soldiers to pursue higher education. Between 1944 and 1951, more than two million veterans enrolled in college.

Second, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits colleges and universities that receive federal money from discriminating against applicants based on “race, color, or national origin.” Eight years later, Congress would pass another landmark law – Title IX – a law that prohibits institutions from discriminating on the basis of sex. This law, at least in theory, seeks to level the playing field for college admissions.

Between 1945 and 1995, the percentage of Americans over the age of 25 who had earned a bachelor’s degree rose from about 5% to 23%, according to the Census Bureau. And as higher education became more accessible, the SAT became the most important exam Americans ever took.

A standard in flux
The College Board is constantly revamping and redesigning both the SAT’s scoring metrics and its exam content. For decades, the test consisted of two multiple-choice sections: math and verbal reasoning. Each section is worth a total of 800 points, making a perfect score of 1600.

In 2005, the College Board added an 800-point writing section to the exam along with math and verbal reasoning sections. The test, scored out of 2400 instead of 1600, is also 45 minutes longer. About nine years later, the SAT returned to a 1600-point essay option model before completely eliminating the essay section in 2021.

In this Jan. 17, 2016 file photo, a sign is seen at the entrance to a hall for a college test preparation class in Bethesda, Md.
In this Jan. 17, 2016 file photo, a sign is seen at the entrance to a hall for a college test preparation class in Bethesda, Md. Alex Brandon/AP
On March 9, the College Board administered the first fully digital SAT exam. At about two hours, the test, which has been taken by more than 200,000 students on the test-taking app, is significantly shorter than its predecessor. It is also adaptive, meaning that the questions in the second half of the reading and math sections are adjusted based on the student’s performance in the first half.

Part of the impetus for the redesign came from competition with the Iowa-based ACT, which has been administered since 1959 but has since become the exam of choice in many parts of the country.

“As the ACT started to gain more traction and because it was shorter, the SAT really wanted to maintain its market share, and so it made some changes for that reason,” said Rachel Rubin, a higher education policy expert and associate. -founder of Massachusetts-based education consulting company, Spark Admissions.

Although the SAT has seen a slight decline in the number of test-takers, with 1.9 million students taking the exam in 2023 compared to 2.2 million pre-pandemic, the College Board exam is still tight. Only about 1.4 million students took the ACT in 2023, compared to 1.7 million in 2019.

Work through a history of bias
The analogical section of the SAT, a fixture of the exam until 2005, has long been criticized for assuming that test takers come from certain cultural backgrounds. Notable examples from the 1980s include “regattas,” which are sporting events consisting of boat races that are almost exclusively common among wealthy Northeast communities.

“For years the SAT … has been made by people who are almost entirely white, mostly male, and mostly college and university educated from the Northeast,” said Jack Schneider, head of the UMass Amherst Center for Education Policy. “The assumptions they make about what any well-educated person needs to know are in many ways biased against communities of color, low-income communities and communities where a language other than English is the primary language.”

Schneider admits that removing bias from the SAT is extremely difficult because “we live in a biased society.”

In this Jan. 17, 2016, photo, a student looks at a question during a college test prep class at Holton Arms School in Bethesda, Md.
In this Jan. 17, 2016, photo, a student looks at a question during a college test prep class at Holton Arms School in Bethesda, Md. Alex Brandon/AP
The College Board told CNN it has also eliminated its esoteric vocabulary in the past decade.

“Starting in 2014, we said let’s measure all the most common things that are most useful in college and that students are more likely to encounter in their high school classrooms,” said College Board CEO David Coleman, noting this applies to both mathematics curriculum and vocabulary mastery.

In recent years, the College Board has implemented cost-saving initiatives for eligible test takers to promote equity, such as waiving the $60 registration fee and offering a college application fee waiver, which can save applicants as much as $90 per school. It has partnered with educational non-profit Khan Academy since 2015 to provide free test preparation materials.

The SAT School Day program, launched in 2014, allows students to take the test on a weekday instead of on a designated weekend at a test center that may be unfamiliar. The College Board says the majority of students use the program, which “has been proven to lead to higher college attendance rates for low-income and rural students.”

Coleman said men Administering the test in a familiar environment can reduce the stress inherent in the SAT experience. He added that the shorter digital exam is also intended to accommodate different types of test takers.

“(Older versions of the SAT) can feel like they’re designed for very fast young people, and it’s a big mistake to confuse fast with smart,” Coleman said. “The digital exam gives children 160% more time per question … to ensure they can complete the exam without feeling out of breath.”

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