A Number for Life: The New New SAT

A Number for Life: The New New SAT

If you’re serious about improving the quality of college applicants, the answer lies in devoting time and effort to developing a more rigorous and standardized high school curricula.

To: Mr. David Coleman
President, College Board
New York, NY

Dear Mr. Coleman:

For the second time in eight years, the College Board has announced that it will radically change the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) for use in the spring of 2016.

Now pretty much everyone reading this letter has taken either the SAT or its competing test, the ACT. They are, in fact, the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac of educational attainment. It is fair to say that there are a few numbers that every person in this country born in the last 60 years will know about themselves: Social Security number, total cholesterol number and their SAT score. A person goes through life silently measuring themselves against their peers, colleagues and their children based on their SAT score. When I was in college, I even knew girls who boasted about the SAT or ACT score of their boyfriends. Marriages were founded on flimsier grounds than the one-morning stand of the SAT exam.

The ubiquitous but mysterious College Board is a lot like those other organizations that affect our daily lives: Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Reserve. Neither the College Board nor ACT Inc. are publicly traded, and both make hundreds of millions of dollars in fees from anxious students and their even more anxious parents (and in taxpayer money through state legislatures). All of these organizations affect our daily lives in direct but somewhat murky ways. And so a change such as the SAT announcement is a tectonic movement under our very feet.

The most recently announced changes in the SAT will make it seem a great deal more like the ACT: no penalty for guessing (Remember when we were counseled not to guess on the SAT, but to go ahead and guess on the ACT?), a reversion to a 1,600-point scale (all the better to compare our grades with our own children) and a change in emphasis to that which is taught in high school. As reported in the New York Times, the fact that the ACT is now administered to more students than the SAT probably played a role in the College Board’s decision to announce these changes.

Testing advisory services like Kaplan and Princeton Review charge billions of dollars to help students increase their SAT and ACT scores. The New York Times published a chart showing a direct correlation between SAT scores and self-reported household income; as test scores went up, so did self-reported household income. Access to expensive test preparation clearly is helpful.

In the face of this well-known correlation, the College Board has asserted that the new SAT test will close the income gap by waiving fees for low-income students and providing free online test preparation. These steps are likely to have no impact.

Critics of the SAT, such as Randolf Arguelles writing in the Wall Street Journal, have pointed out that free online and in-person tutoring for underperforming students has been available for a long time. Further, to the extent the SAT and ACT mirror high school curricula, these tests will do nothing more than reflect the income variation that exists presently between high schools—rich suburban high schools typically do a great deal better than poor urban-center high schools. In fact, some of these critics have gone on to say that the SAT will further highlight these disparities. What should be done?

Standardized testing is not about to go away. Most colleges and universities will continue to rely on standardized tests as the only way to weed through an avalanche of admission requests. The entire testing and application business generates many billions of dollars a year—such industries do not disappear quickly.

A student’s GPA represents a rough measure of their body of work over a four-year period—it’s much more predictive of collegiate success than the SAT or ACT. For this reason, if you’re really serious about improving the quality of college applicants, the answer lies in devoting time and effort to developing a more rigorous and standardized high school curricula. The development of a core curricula to be used in this nation’s high schools would do a great deal more to solve the income disparity in our education system than changing whether or not you are penalized for guessing on the SAT.

Sincerely yours,

Vance K. Opperman
Owner of a No.2 Pencil

Vance K. Opperman (vopperman@keyinvestment.com) is owner and CEO of MSP Communications, which publishes Twin Cities Business.


More On SAT Vs. ACT Tests

Less than 10 percent of college-bound seniors in Minnesota take the SAT test. About 74 percent of Minnesotans who graduated from high school in 2013 took the ACT test. In 2013, Minnesota’s average composite ACT score of 23.0 was the highest in the nation among the 28 states in which more than half of the college-bound students took the test.

Among Minnesota students, typical SAT test-takers are those considering applications to selective out-of-state colleges and national scholarship programs.

The SAT in Minnesota

  • The number of test-takers fell from 4,053 students in 2011-12 to 3,749 in 2012-13.
  • Test-takers had a mean high school grade point average of 3.72.
  • 80% of test-takers ranked in the top 20 percent of their high schools.
  • 84% of test -takers had at least one parent who had a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Source: Minnesota Office of Higher Education

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