Well, well, well. Here we are again. More changes from the SAT—not moving back to 2400 as a perfect score instead of 1600 as was the case pre-2015, and not dropping essay requirements or discontinuing subject exams as they did last year. Those types of changes are now passé, even quaint. Old school is so … old.
This time it’s all about digital. Lights! Electricity! Laptops not pencils, and bye-bye scantrons. Yes, they are moving the test online and shrinking it from three hours to two. Reading passages will be shorter, and students will be able to use a calculator on all parts of the math section. One thing that will not change, however, is the controversy of the exam’s role in the admissions process.
I see this as a market pivot by a highly profitable nonprofit trying to claw back relevancy. Future longitudinal studies will assess student outcomes, but I predict these will continue to depend more on individual institutions’ admissions theses/criteria than anything exam peddlers say or do. Economic drivers in our commodified times complicate this. What truly matters is increasing equitable access, but oh how people like to make money even with the future of education for millions of deserving teens on the line. Because: ‘Merica.
The proposed changes are projected to take place first at international test sites next year. (Am I the only one wondering why? Is this a testing ground, maybe like a pilot of sorts?) Stateside we’ll see the change by spring 2024.
Industry stakeholders who are pro-exam say the tests help identify academic potential. Critics argue that they are racially biased and help students who are already privileged. Much has been written in both academia and the media about the negative impact of standardized testing on access. The College Board and Educational Testing Service (ETS), its test-taking company for the SAT and AP exams, are defended by a team of lawyers in over a million dollars’ worth of legal battles annually, and regularly face criticism by stakeholders in the college admissions industry (Phelps, 2018). Good thing they can afford it—see the figure below for what publicly released tax returns reveal about the moolah in the machinations as of several years ago.
In these digital times, privacy has become a major concern for the public. Big data lies at the core of the business models of the biggest companies in the world, including Google, Amazon, Facebook…and The College Board. When it comes to harvesting of student data, the nonprofit has been criticized in the news and on higher education industry sites for selling names and contact data (PCSP, 2020). When students sign up at their schools to take PSAT exams, the terms of service allow their schools to consent to this for students, putting their name on a list where colleges (and other interested purchasers including the military) can market to them.
The last I heard each name went for forty-eights cents. Do the math with more than 15 million high school students every year, and that turns into a tidy sum. Add the income from AP exams and other revenue streams, and it’s difficult to not be both impressed and concerned by the amount of influence this organization holds. As the ACT has overtaken the SAT in popularity in recent years here in the U.S., it’s perhaps no surprise that the SAT business model is evolving to incorporate major movement into Asia, especially India. These types of revenue-focused pivots are all standard operating procedure for large corporations. It’s just astounding to see the swan song (death rattle?) of the SAT couched in so much overtly marketing-based language when TCB purports to care about equity. One back-channel thread of industry insiders I saw immediately following the announcement compared to situation to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
SAT and ACT exams are discussed as a genuine threat to equitable college access in many heated presentations and conversations in admissions-related conferences, including ones I’ve personally attended for admissions counselors and district superintendents, such as WACAC, CoSN, CAAASA, and ALAS. Such concerns tether to the racially uneven outcomes of the admissions process, largely attributed to the negative impact of what are seen as biased entrance requirements (Bloom, 2007; Knight et al., 2004; Hachey & McCallen, 2018). The time and financial costs of preparation for these tests constitute an obstacle many students from disadvantaged backgrounds struggle to overcome. In fact, many may not even be aware of what they are, why they matter, or how to approach them as a serious aspect of the junior year of high school.
Furthermore, the so-called merit aid given to students therefore often isn’t helping those who need it most, further privileging those from higher SES backgrounds. Admissions office practices related to economic indicators have been called into question as they in some cases impede educational equity. Merit aid has historically been connected to standardized exam scores, but since there is no standardized U.S. high school curriculum, many students from underperforming districts and overcrowded schools have not had sufficient exposure to the content on the SAT or ACT, and there is nothing they could have done to improve that. These exams have increasingly come under scrutiny, and are seen by many working toward improving college access as a way to promote the wealthy while blocking those without the financial, social, or cultural capital to navigate the unfair playing field.
So, what do these new SAT changes mean for students? In the immediate future, nothing. Current juniors and sophomores will have cleared the hurdle, if indeed they plan to take the SAT at all, by spring of 2024 when this rolls out. Current freshman will be the first to take the revised, shortened, online SAT. No doubt most teens will welcome a digital format and shorter exam. Still, questions that remain to be seen include: (1) Which demographic of students will benefit most from these changes? (2) How will this new exam factor into the admissions calculus at individual institutions? And (3) As America’s higher education system comes under increasing scrutiny, with over $1.7B in student debt and rising questions about the value of some degrees, is major industry-wide disruption inevitable regardless of these types of iterations?
That last question, my friends, is the true third rail.
Bloom, J. (2007). (Mis)reading social class in the journey towards college: youth development in urban america. Teachers College Record.
Hachey, V. K., & McCallen, L. S. (2018). Perceptions of Campus Climate and Sense of Belonging Among Non-immigrant, First-Generation, and Second-Generation Students. In Evaluating Campus Climate at US Research Universities (pp. 209-231). Springer.
Knight, M. G., Norton, N. E., Bentley, C. C., & Dixon, I. R. (2004). The power of Black and Latina/o counterstories: Urban families and college‐going processes. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 35(1), 99-120.
PCSP. (2020). Student privacy matters: parents question college board’s use of student data. https://studentprivacymatters.org/tag/college-board-lawsuit/.
Phelps, R.P. (2018). Does college board deserve public subsidies? Nonpartisan Education Review 14(7), 1–45. http://nonpartisaneducation.org/Review/Articles/v14n7.pdf.
Publica, P. (2018). The college board tax return, form 990. Retrieved 5/14/21 from https://projects.propublica.org/nonprofits/organizations/131623965/201933179349304943/full?fbclid=IwAR3db3owI9ID7783ZTlnAcPW8QXL4N4HGptmpSmlgpk2tHbOflK0nEyQTPM