Another “All New, Improved SAT” . . . This Time With Tail Fins?

University Testing

FairTest Examiner, March 2013

Just eight years after the College Board overhauled its flagship test, the organization’s new head has revealed that the SAT is slated for another major makeover. The announcement is tacit recognition that the highly touted “new SAT,” first administered in 2005, was a flop. At the same time, the move attempts to undercut the growing strength of the national movement toward test-optional admissions.  As with “New Coke,” rejection by the marketplace left the exam’s corporate sponsors with no choice other than trying to “reformulate” the product.

Recently installed College Board President David Coleman says that the new, new SAT will be aligned with the Common Core State Standards.  It is no coincidence that he previously led that project. No specifics of the forthcoming revisions have been made public, but Coleman has been very critical of the test’s so-called “essay” and emphasis on arcane vocabulary.

Even the College Board admits that the 2005 revision of the SAT, quickly developed after threats that the University of California would drop its testing requirement, is no better than prior exams. It is neither a stronger predictor of undergraduate grades nor a fairer measure of an increasingly diverse student population. According to test prep companies, it is even more susceptible to high-priced coaching programs.

Responding to the College Board’s ongoing failure to address the exam’s flaws, the number of schools dropping the SAT has surged. Since 2005, nearly 90 colleges and universities have eliminated testing requirements for all or many applicants. That brings the total to more than 800. The test-optional list now includes 140 institutions ranked in the top tier of their respective categories by U.S. News & World Report.

The most recent addition is Catawba College, a competitive liberal arts school in Salisbury, North Carolina. Beginning immediately, Catawba will no longer require the SAT (or ACT) from applicants with high school grade point averages of 3.25 or higher. Catawba’s announcement reiterated key arguments that have convinced other schools.  According to Vice President of Enrollment Management Lois Williams, “Standardized tests can be a double-edged sword for colleges and universities. They may cause some institutions to rule out perfectly capable students, or students to rule themselves out because of failing to meet a minimum test score requirement. At Catawba, curriculum and grades, coupled with extracurricular activities, writing ability and evidence of character and creative talent continue to the best evaluative measures for admissions decisions.”

A declining market share is another likely motivation for the test overhaul decision. In 2012, the rival ACT overtook the SAT as the college admissions exam taken by more U.S. high school seniors. The ACT test-taking population grew rapidly over the past decade in large part because its sponsor signed up ten states, including large ones such as Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, and North Carolina, to administer the exam to all students during high school. In the same period, only three small states, Delaware, Idaho and Maine, agreed to require the SAT as part of their high school assessment programs. Over the past year, the College Board has tried to regain momentum by launching “SAT School Day.” In that package deal, taxpayers underwrite the administration of the SAT to all students during regular classroom time.

Previous revisions of college admissions exams have produced huge spikes in business for test prep firms as fearful students try to gain a leg up. Once again, corporations such as Princeton Review and Kaplan are likely to be the big winners as the SAT makeover moves from concept to administration, while students will continue to lose.