Will the New SAT Be a Better Barometer for College Readiness?

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Tim Sheerman-Chase

For the fifth year in a row, less than 50 percent of high schoolers reached the “college and career ready” SAT Benchmark score of 1550, according to the 2013 SAT Report on College and Career Readiness provided by the College Board. While underrepresented minorities’ scores made small gains, and minority test-takers were at an all-time high, the Board agreed that an overall cause for concern was warranted. “This number has remained virtually unchanged for the past five years,” the report stated, “underscoring a need to dramatically increase the number of K-12 students who acquire the skills and knowledge that research demonstrates are critical to college readiness.”

The report shows a direct link between meeting the Benchmark of 1550 and college completion, showing that 54 percent of students scoring 1550 or above completed college in four years, and 77 percent within six. Conversely, only 24 percent of those scoring below 1550 completed college in four years.

At the same time, newly appointed College Board President (and Common Core designer) David Coleman has promised to re-make the SAT. A recent New York Times article reported him saying that the test should focus on “things that matter more so that the endless hours students put into practicing for the SAT will be work that’s worth doing,” and says “the heart” of the new SAT will be analyzing evidence in a range of subjects, from math to literacy to history.

The new test is slated to be revealed in January, and as of now it’s hard to know specifically what the changes will actually look like, and in what ways the test will be “improved” for test takers.

“The SAT, as it exists now, is the best assessment out there that predicts college and career readiness. And with the understanding that even the best can be better, we’re working with our members on an evidence-based redesign of the exam,” said Carly Lindauer, Senior Director of External Communications at College Board. Without providing any examples of test questions or design, Lindauer did speak to why the Board believes the SAT needs an overhaul: rigor and access.


“The redesign of the SAT will be based on the evidence of what college and career readiness entails,” Lindauer said. “This is the same evidence that underpins the Common Core and other rigorous state standards. Our objective is to ensure that the SAT better meets the changing needs of students, schools and colleges at all levels.”

Using the report as a guide, the College Board recognizes that the 43 percent of test takers who did meet the 1500 Benchmark have several things in common: they have completed a core curriculum (defined as four years of English, three years of mathematics, three years of natural science, and three years of history), they have taken honors or AP courses and higher level math, like trigonometry or pre-calculus. The Board said it has realized that their work goes beyond designing and scoring the test, but providing support to get more students in a place where they can reach the Benchmark.

“This is truly an access issue and it is a call to action for the College Board,” Lindauer said. “The College Board is working with partners to ensure that every student who demonstrates AP potential has access to the rigorous coursework that will prepare them for college success. Last year alone there were 300,000 students with the potential to succeed in an AP course who didn’t take one.”

They also recognize the cost may be prohibitive for some high-achievers, and said that 50 percent of high-achieving, low-income students attend less selective colleges where fewer students earn a four-year degree. Lindauer said the College Board is working on expanding access to fee waivers and SAT School Day, in which students can take the SAT during a school day at their local high school, with fees paid for by the state.


But some organizations, colleges and universities are challenging the notion that the SAT -- re-vamped or not -- provides an accurate picture of whether or not a student is prepared for college-level work. Outspoken college professors like Anne Ruggles Gere of the University of Michigan have blasted the essay portion of the test for being "simplistic, reductive," and emphasizing length and word size over content and meaning. Bard College made waves recently for announcing that beginning this fall, students can opt out of standardized testing and write four assigned 2,500-word essays instead, attempting to return college admissions to its original goal of “rewarding the best candidates, rather than just those who are best able to market themselves to admissions committees,” according to The New York Times.

And MIT is expanding admissions with a new maker portfolio option, a structured way in which students can share the projects they’ve been working on, from robots to theatrical costumes to symphonies. According to MIT Dean of Admissions Stu Schmill, “The essence of what colleges want is for students to be engaged in whatever they are doing. We don’t want students who do things because they have to, or because they think it will look good on their résumé. We want students to do things because they find true enjoyment and personal growth from them. That’s the way that young people — and, for that matter, old people and middle-aged people — thrive.”

Bard and MIT aren’t the only universities fed up with the limits of standardized testing in college admissions, said Bob Schaeffer, public education director at The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, or FairTest. According to the the FairTest website, more than 800 accredited colleges and universities do not require SAT or ACT scores from all students before granting admissions; of that 800, more than 150 are first-tier in their respective categories, according to US News and World Report rankings.

Schaeffer said FairTest is skeptical of the new SAT, and wonders whether Coleman’s new redesign is more marketing campaign than assessment improvement. “Given that the test underwent a comprehensive overhaul less than a decade ago,” he said, “we are suspicious that the current initiative may be primarily a public relations ploy by incoming College Board President David Coleman aimed at regaining market share from the ACT, which has taken over as the nation's most popular undergraduate admissions test in recent years.”

FairTest argues that the ideal “test” for college applicants is four years of coursework, plus projects and performances, and cites research that high school grades make a better predictor for college success than any standardized test scores, including the SAT and ACT. While Schaeffer agrees with the College Board that rigorous high school classes prepare kids for college, “The idea that any one factor [like taking the SAT] can accurately capture the complexity of factors of achievement is ludicrous,” he said.

For many students, however, the SAT is still considered a major hurdle to college admissions, and they feel compelled to take it. Eighteen-year-old Cristian Padilla, a senior in Atlanta, Georgia, said that he took the test once in the spring of his junior year, but he’s taking the SAT again this fall because a good score is required from the colleges he’s interested in. But Padilla said he wasn’t aware that the test was important to get into college until late in the game. “It was a new thing for me when I had to take it [the SAT] because I did not know of such test until my late sophomore year,” he said. “Furthermore, I was never told of the importance of this test. For this reason I never prepared for it, nor did I feel obliged to do so. My ideal score would be at least an 1800, but even that seems far-fetched since I am taking only my second time.”

For Padilla, the cost of tutors and the test itself makes it difficult to get a good score, because he can’t afford to take it more than twice. “I have been preparing for the test simply by purchasing the SAT blue study guide book,” he said. “I don't have a tutor (even though I wish), because it's expensive and out of reach of my family's affordability. I try to use the book myself and take practice tests, but I find it hard to stay on it because it distracts from my in-school work and learning.”

In Ilsan, South Korea, high school senior Chaesong Kim is also studying for her second try at the SAT, with hopes to attain her ideal score of 2300 and gain entrance to an American university. After studying with a personal study guide for two years, this year Kim is attending a private SAT academy where tutors help her to get a better score, some of which have been accused of cheating, causing the College Board to cancel all SAT tests in South Korea last May.

Ironically, Kim is working hard at memorizing vocabulary and test-taking techniques for the SAT so she can gain intellectual freedom from more tests. She believes a good SAT score will gain her admission to an American school where she can start studying performance art and Chinese, and stop memorizing. “I believe American colleges will allow more freedom,” she said. “This freedom not only includes the right to choose whichever courses I want to take but also the freedom from school, parents and ‘duty’ which all limit the students from participating in activities other than studying on a chair through text books. This is not granted freely in Korea.”

While on different sides of the socio-economic spectrum as well as the globe, Padilla and Kim do agree that the SAT isn’t a good measure of what they know, or what they will be able to achieve in college.

“My impression of the SAT is that it does not actually deal with factual information, which I ‘learn,’ but it focuses more on the parts that can be ‘trained.’ It trains you to read, interpret and understand in a certain way, to recognize certain patterns as errors, and to brainstorm rapidly to complete an essay,” Kim said.


Padilla’s concerned he’s at a disadvantage from the beginning, considering he doesn’t attend a high-achieving school that provides lots of AP classes and SAT prep classes. “The test is not hard, but from what I've observed, it is more than a test. There's more strategy to it than just simple knowledge and application. I feel that if I was more prepared for it, I would do better, but that is not the case,” he said.