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New SAT Test, Same Old Problems?

The College Board promised more educational opportunities and a better test with its redesigned SAT. Test coaches, critics and colleges weigh in on the new exam. [Photo Illustration]

The College Board promised more educational opportunities and a better test with its redesigned SAT. Test coaches, critics and colleges weigh in on the new exam. [Photo Illustration]

James S. Murphy arrived at his assigned testing site in May at 7:45 AM ready to take the new, redesigned SAT. Dressed in his Princeton Review t-shirt and carrying Princeton Review pencils, the professional tutor joined over one dozen fellow test prep coaches in his exam room.

But Murphy, who had taken the exam twice before under the old format, got bumped along with other industry professionals by the College Board one week before his original March 5 test date. The reasons given were security concerns. Only undergraduate applicants were allowed to take the SAT.  The tutoring manager at The Princeton Review has worked in the test preparation industry since 1992 and assisted over 1,000 students. It’s part of his job to experience the same test his advisees will face.  “I want to know every element,” he said, from hearing the test instructions to completing the sections on deadline.

After years of criticism that the exam was biased against women and minorities, inaccurate in predicting college success, skewed against people whose first language was not English, and susceptible to score inflation by coaching, the College Board, a nonprofit organization and makers of the SAT, rolled out a redesigned exam in March of 2016.  It pledged to move from delivering assessments to delivering opportunity for test-takers to achieve college success.

Some of the changes included fewer but longer Math questions focused on problem solving, removing the penalty for guessing the wrong answer, and an optional essay.  In addition, the College Board provided test prep materials through Khan Academy, a website that provides free online materials to learners of any age, and expanded its fee waiver program. Critics argued that the redesign still did not address the fundamental flaws of the exam and failed to predict college success. The test was also still vulnerable to being leaked.

One counselor, who works directly with college bound kids, felt the changes were beside the point.  “It is a mistake to imagine that the SAT predicts the outcome of college success,” said Josh Steckel, co-author of “Hold Fast to Dreams: A College Guidance Counselor, His Students and the Vision of a Life Beyond Poverty.” The recently published book documented the lives of ten New York City public school students as they navigated the college application process and matriculated though college. “These tests are not opportunity apparatuses. These are barriers.”

Standardized tests reveal a student’s background, not her academic potential. Those who have access to extensive coaching and costly test preparation inevitably score higher than those who can’t afford the services, he said.

Steckel believes that colleges should focus more on a student’s life story and understand the challenges they navigated to make it this far. “I think there are many, many students who have tremendous promise and potential whose life stories have impacted their ability to be successful,” he said about standardized tests. “It is extraordinarily important for colleges to have a holistic approach that includes careful assessments of letters of recommendation and knowledge of their backgrounds.”

The leading anti-test proponent believes the redesigned SAT is a flop.  “The new SAT may look more consumer-friendly, but is not a better test,” said Bob Schaeffer, director of Public Education at the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, an anti-standardized test organization. “It will still under-predict the classroom performance of women, older applicants and students whose first language is not English. The coaching industry is already selling high-priced ‘test prep steroids’ to teenagers whose parents can pay thousands to artificially boost scores on the revised exam.”

Increasingly, Schaeffer wrote on the Center’s website, higher education decision makers are abandoning the SAT and its rival, the ACT, as irrelevant for admissions. He believes that high school grades and school curriculum are better predictors of success.

“The changes seem designed to compete with the ACT, the most widely used admissions exam,” he said. “The College Board also appears more interested in trying to slow the test-optional movement than improving the test’s measurement precision.”

More Colleges Bailing Out of Standardized Tests
In 1969, Maine’s Bowdoin College was one of the first schools to become test optional, an admissions policy where a perspective student chooses whether or not to forward standardized tests scores. In the test’s stead, the applicant submits a writing sample graded by a teacher.

This grassroots effort picked up steam in the 1990s and has steadily increased.  The Center for Fair and Open Testing reported that over 850 colleges and universities are test optional. Over 200 schools on the list are ranked as top tier colleges and universities on U.S. News and World Report’s 2016 Best Colleges list.  According the National Center for Education Statistics’ 2015 figures, there are 2,968 four-year colleges in the U.S.

Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA, has been test optional since 1991. The decision hasn’t hurt its ranking in the U.S. News and World Report list of top liberal arts colleges. In 2016, it ranked 40th out of 174 nationally ranked liberal arts colleges. Eric D. Maguire, vice president and dean of Admission and Financial Aid said that his office evaluates applicants based on their grade point average, high school curriculum and class rank.  Applicants must also submit two graded writing samples.

“A student’s writing ability is very predictive of their success,” said Maguire. He added that his office looks at the quality of the written work and judges using the following criteria, “Is it advanced? Is it at grade level? Is it sub-par?”

Franklin & Marshall’s admissions office also encourages high school seniors to answer the second writing portion of the application and schedule an in-person interview. Both are optional. “To F&M, fit is really important,” he added.

The test optional policy has also increased student body diversity. Currently 7.6 percent are Hispanic, 5.6 percent are African-American; 5 percent are Asian, 17 percent are international (any ethnicity), and 2.1 percent are two ethnicities or more according to the school’s website.  Maguire’s office received approximately 7,000 applications, admitted 2,300 students and expects 600 to enroll for the incoming class of 2020. Twenty-five percent of applicants chose not to send standardized tests scores.

Maguire applauded the College Board for its efforts to align the test with more high school course content. But, he said the new design will not impact how Franklin & Marshall evaluates its candidates. His office still believes the high school transcript, writing samples, GPA and interview are the best measurements. The redesigned SAT “has very little predictive power” of an applicant’s success in college.

Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC, which has been test optional in 2008 and ties at 27 out of 199 of top universities on U.S News & World Report’s 2016 list, shares the same sentiment.  “We have increased the diversity of our campus and have drawn national attention to the importance of high school curriculum, achievement and talent. We find much more value in a student’s accomplishments in four years of high school than in a few hours of Saturday testing,” wrote Martha Blevins Allman, the University’s dean of Admissions in an email.

According to the school’s website, 25 to 30 percent of students each year apply to Wake Forest without submitting standardized test scores. For the incoming class of 2020, the school received almost 14,000 applications and offered admittance to 29 percent of those students.

William C. Hiss and Valerie W. Franks at Bates College, a test optional school, published the 2014 study “Defining Promise: Optional Standardized Testing Policies in American Colleges and Universities.” It examines the outcomes of standardized testing policies in the admissions offices of 33 public and private colleges and universities.

The study saw a very small difference in the prediction of college success based on standardized test scores.  “With almost 123,000 students at 33 widely differing institutions, the differences between submitters and non-submitters are five one-hundredths of a GPA point and six-tenths of one percent in graduation rates,” stated the report.  Applicants who elected not to submit standardized test scores were more likely to be first-generation college bound enrollees, women, minorities, Pell Grant recipients and students with learning disabilities. White students used this policy as well and it had broad appeal across all ethnic groups.

Majority of Colleges Still Take Stock in the SAT
Brian T. Grant, dean of Admissions at Clarkson University, a private school in Potsdam, NY believes standardized test scores is one of the factors that can help predict college success.  “We have seen that there is a relationship with SAT scores and retention,” wrote Grant in an email. The school ties at number 115 out of 199 of nationally ranked universities on U.S. News & World Report’s 2016 list.

“We look at the entire student background, GPA, quality of coursework, extracurricular activities, etc. We evaluate our students on four years of work, not just four hours,” he emailed.  “We make sure that the SAT is not the sole reason to base an admission decision. When looking at the whole student, we are able to get a sense of the student’s academic abilities.”

As to the impact of the redesigned SAT and how it might change Clarkson’s admissions process, “Time will tell,” Grant said. “We are hoping that the new SAT will represent a student’s academic abilities.”

Grant’s office declined to release figures on the number of applicants, acceptances and enrollment rate for the incoming class of 2020.

Mitch Warren, Purdue University’s director of Admissions in West Lafayette, IN, said the university uses a holistic review of an applicant. The school tied at number 61 out of 199 for nationally ranked universities by U.S. News & World Report for 2016. Standardized test scores are one component of an extensive process. The school received approximately 48,000 applications for the incoming class of 2020 for nearly 7,000 seats. All applications are read by an average of four people and each person weighs in on the candidate.  His office also considers letters of recommendation, grades, curriculum and the in-person interview.

“The high school transcript depends on where they go to high school, what courses are available, what the grading system is. And, is there any weight added for courses such as honors, advanced placement? And if weight is added, some schools add a lot of weight, some add a little, some schools do not do anything. But, the ACT and the SAT are standardized. They are a nice compliment to each other,” said Warren. “We know that they are in all in the same playing field.”

In all of the 19 years Warren has been at Purdue, he said the University has had outreach programs which work with community based organizations that support underserved schools and low-income students. It introduces Purdue to a wider audience of students. According to the University’s website, the undergraduate class entering in the fall of 2015 consisted of 13 percent international students, five percent Asian, three percent Latino and two percent African-American.

Nagging Security Lapses
Although the College Board has introduced a redesigned test, it still has an old problem—security lapses. In the March 28, 2016 story, “As SAT was hit by security breaches, College Board went ahead with test that had leaked,” Reuters, a newswire service stated, “American students who took the new test in March have been discussing the questions and answers online in granular detail. Asian prep centers have rushed to learn all they can about the redesigned SAT and share the intelligence with their clients.” This results in students, who take the test overseas, with an advantage with over their American counterparts.  They can view test questions beforehand and potentially get a higher score.

In Reuters’ exclusive report “U.S. students given SATS that were online before exam” on April 22, 2016, the news service wrote that at least three times in the past three years, high schools students in the United States were administered SAT exams where the questions and answers were available online for more than one year.

In response to questions to the College Board on protecting the exam, a spokesperson emailed that the nonprofit consistently works to enhance its security measure and that the information it obtains through its investigations will be used to prevent future breaches.

For Clarkson and Purdue, the potential for compromised results does not change both offices from using the exam as one of its evaluation tools. Warren said that the College Board investigates instances of scores being comprised and advises colleges if results have to be nullified.  He added that there is the potential for a test score to be compromised at a high school side as well.  It is why his team has multiple staff members carefully read all the materials submitted to get a clear picture of applicants.

Grant at Clarkson University agrees. In response to the question about potentially compromised test scores, he wrote, “Since standardize tests are only a small part of the decision process, we do not have any concerns.”

New and improved? Not so fast
A volunteer SAT coach and site director for Let’s Get Ready, a nonprofit that provides free test prep, college application and college advisement for low-income youth, believes the new exam creates a new kind of inequality. “I think the SAT is aligned more with common core standards. So, it’s relying on what they would have learned in school,” said Clara Leonard. “That’s problematic because they assume everyone has the same quality of education.”

Of the redesigned exam Leonard said, “It could be potentially problematic because it’s so reading heavy.” She did not take the May 7 test but has worked on the practice materials with students.

With more reading in the Math section and more data in the reading section, “everything is new but the name,” said Michael Boothroyd, Kaplan Test Prep’s executive director of College Admissions Programs, of the redesign. He said it was too soon to tell if the exam needed further changes.

What is clear, however, is that the SAT redesign sparked more interest in its competition, the ACT, as more students realized there was another test option.  It also fueled interest in learning about both exams. Boothroyd said there was a 50 percent increase in the number of people who signed up ACT test prep last February, and a 100 percent increase in sales of the company’s latest SAT Test Prep book.

On CollegeConfidential.com’s online forum, a website that offers advice to parents and students on college and the college application process, May test-takers weighed in on the exam. One person wrote that the writing section was difficult and that the math portion was fairly easy. Although the reading section was easier, a second person wrote that he ran out of time.

In the March 4, 2016 article, “Why the SAT is not the answer” for The Hechinger Report, Murphy and co-author Akil Bello wrote that they were skeptical that the redesigned SAT test would deliver the opportunity the College Board promised.  They stated that the test was a diagnostic exams and a redesign would not eliminate the socioeconomic disparities.

“The SAT makes distinctions between students, which is precisely why the SAT is ultimately at odds with all the other work College Board is doing to increase access to college,” they wrote.  “The College Board and secondary schools want equity; colleges want excellence; students want opportunities; and their parents want advantages. The SAT cannot serve all these masters.” Both supported the College Board’s plan to expand access to fee waivers for income eligible students.  In addition to taking the test for free, students could apply to up to four colleges at no charge.

The SAT is just one of the exams administered by the College Board. The nonprofit also makes the PSAT/NMSQT, which is the preliminary version of the SAT and the AP, an Advanced Placement Test. If the test-taker scores well, the exam could be used towards college credits. According to the organization’s most recent tax records, the nonprofit made $99 million in 2013-2014 financial year.  The College Board declined to answer how many people registered for the May 7 exam.

Life After Standardized Tests
Low-income students navigating the road to college have to do much more than score well on a standardized test or find schools that are test optional.  Steckel said that they have to have great writing samples and do well in the personal interview. “They have to do everything right,” he added.  In many cases, they have to consider applying through Early Decision to help ensure that they have a better chance of getting strong financial aid.

Low-income students have a higher financial need and schools have limited resources. “Colleges that want to become economically and racially diverse cannot do anything if they do not fund students,” he said.

“Let’s make it easier for low-income students to apply for financial aid,” wrote Steckel in a March 24, 2016 op-ed for The Boston Globe. He described the hurdles low-income students navigated to demonstrate financial need.  Many have to fill out the paper work alone because no adult in the family is familiar with the complex process.

Steckel recounted a typical experience of one of his advisees. First, she had to report her family’s monthly food stamp allocation, and the value of the free lunch benefit she and her siblings were eligible to receive every day at school. Then, she had to report the value of her family’s monthly housing subsidy for their Brooklyn public housing apartment. In addition, she had to calculate the value of the vouchers her family received from the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) toward the cost of heat and electricity.

Next, she had to itemize household expenses, calculate clothing, subway fare, cell phone, and welfare assistance. Afterwards, she had to crunch the numbers to show the $501 they received each month was sufficient.

“There is nothing that is optional for our students,” he said in a telephone conversation. “Not only are they working to get into college they are working to get funded.”

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