elephant classroom

Thoughts on College Board’s efforts at making the SAT more “fair”

Thursday, 6 March 2014

When College Board, the largest non-profit standardized testing company announced recently that it has found a way to make the SAT fairer, I was all ears. Like many, I was not ready to drink the Kool Aid just yet. After reading their planned improvements to the SAT starting in 2016, I can say that I am not at all confident that their efforts to level the playing field will have the desired effects. As always however, it is bound to be a mixed bag. Unfortunately, it will likely not level the playing field among students taking the SAT, which is of deep concern to students, parents and teachers alike.

First, the economic inequality, which is at the heart of the issue, reflected in the disparity of SAT scores of economically disadvantaged vs. the affluent will always be there so long as inequality persists. Trick questions or obscure vocabulary words are not the obstacles to students’ success on the SAT, nor is it test-taking strategy or methodology; the opportunity and financial resources to prepare for the test early on and as often as possible in one’s academic career is what yields success. This is the elephant in the room that no one seems to want to admit about the entire entrance exam industry. Overall, those with the financial resources to prepare for the SAT will always perform better on such exams, regardless of content.

The notion that the content is somehow the problem only sheds light on the uncomfortable realities that many students are coming from schools that barely graduate 50% of their seniors on time, or that the high school graduate illiteracy rate is nearly 20% – which is instructive considering the illiteracy rate of prison inmates is over 60%. Additionally, making written communication (essay response) an optional portion of the test will only serve to feed into tired stereotypes like the achievement gap, by promulgating the soft bigotry of diminished expectation as it relates to the students the College Board is purportedly attempting to help.

All of these arguments simply ignore the elephant in the room: socioeconomic inequality. Much has been written on what might actually make a difference in the lives of these students and the educational outcomes that we all want. And as the recent study, “Throwing Money at Education Isn’t Working” indicates, spending more on education by itself isn’t the answer. There are however, some small aspects of the College Board’s effort that deserve to be highlighted for their potential ability to affect positive change.

Perhaps the two best aspects of this new initiative, if executed properly, are the plan “to provide free, online test prep materials — including thousands of practice problems and instructional videos.” I say this while consciously not addressing the enormous caveat that internet access is an issue for low income families. Much could be done in this area as well but that is unfortunately beyond the scope of this commentary. And secondly, to provide free college application vouchers for low-income students to apply for college. Increasing access to quality test preparation materials and providing college application vouchers have the potential to make a small but significant improvement in SAT test preparation and reducing the financial burden of students must bear in order to pursue higher education.

However it is a dubious proposition that it will significantly affect the private SAT tutoring industry overall because there will always be parents that want to hire test preparation companies to give their child that extra edge. But until the bigger issue of economic inequality is addressed in a committed and sustained way, this new initiative will likely only serve as either a temporary fix or a half-measure among the many others over the years that have done little to address the cause of social and economic justice in the educational sphere.



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