Beginning in 2016 and thus with this year’s ninth-graders, the SAT college entrance exam will be a bit different. The essay portion will be optional. For those who choose to take it, a different grading rubric will be implemented. Instead of basing scores on the essay’s coherence, readers will judge the accuracy or quality of the reasoning along with the test-taker’s ability to explain and analyze how an argument is built into the passage. The passage will be taken from founding documents or discussions that have arisen from them. There will no longer be penalties for wrong multiple choice answers. Instead of what is known collectively as “SAT words,” words encountered usually only in the context of the SAT exam, the vocabulary test will be composed of terms commonly used in work settings and schools. The math section is going to narrow in focus to those concepts such as algebra that will be needed for college and life after it. Some may consider the College Board’s decision celebration-worthy news. After all, the exam has been amended in order to better offer its takers, as the organization’s president David Coleman put it, “worthy challenges, not artificial obstacles.” Others, however, think the SAT and ACT tests serve no purpose even with the changes and should either be eliminated or made optional in the college admissions process.
The initial purpose of the SAT was to award scholarships. In the late 1930s it was used to discover “diamond in the rough” students in order to place them in top schools regardless of their financial situations or family connections. It was modeled after an IQ test administered by the Army that impressed the presidents of two Ivy League schools. Eventually, however, the test became a standard part of the university and four-year college admissions process and, not coincidentally, a highly profitable business as well.
Considering the initial intent of the test has changed, some wonder why the ACT and SAT exams are still in existence. Some might say that the ability to make large amounts of money is, in and of itself, reason enough for a business to exist. The modern iteration of the ACT and SAT test manufacturers are politically organized outfits and maintain a cadre of lobbyists. These organizations use aggressive business practices in order to make their products and services essential to the educational system. The College Board, the organization that creates and administers Advanced Placement tests and the SAT college entrance exam, is a $700 million per year corporation.
The role these standardized test manufacturers such as the SAT and ACT play in education is superfluous at best and discriminatory at worst. Findings from a study released in early February showed that high school grade point averages were better predictors for how students would fare in college than SAT and ACT scores. Former Bates College Dean of Admissions, William Hiss, who is also the main author of the study, said that intelligence is so complex, varied, and multifaceted that “no standardized testing system can be expected to capture it.” If the tests do not tell admissions departments anything about the potential of a student’s success at their school, why are these tests a requirement of admission?
It turns out that more and more four-year colleges and universities are asking that very question and coming up with the answer that, indeed, they should not be required. The trend is toward making SAT and ACT scores optional. Out of the approximately 3,000 universities and four-year colleges, nearly 900 currently have test-optional policies. That number has grown exponentially in the past twenty years. This movement towards making the SAT and ACT exams optional stems from a longstanding criticism that high SAT scores often indicate a student’s ability to afford expensive exam strategy courses more than anything else. As President Obama noted in January, “Standardized tests are not standardized.” Using the example of his own two daughters who have been receiving advice on the SAT since 7th grade, the President recognized that the “degree of advance preparation” that many kids get “tilts the playing field.” So instead of congratulating the College Board on the changes it has made, one’s efforts should be put into either eliminating or making the SAT an optional part of the admissions process at every four-year college and university.
Opinion By Donna Westlund