New Initiatives Undermine Exam-Maker Credibility

University Testing

FairTest Examiner, March 2009

The launch of a pair of testing products by the College Board has sparked increased criticism of the non-profit firm’s commercial agenda. Readistep, a new middle-school exam, appears to be little more than a pre-, pre-SAT, while “Score Choice” marks the reintroduction and expansion of a SAT reporting policy the College Board had cancelled several years ago due to serious fairness concerns.

Scheduled for its first administration in the fall of 2009, Readistep will be a somewhat less difficult version of the Preliminary SAT (PSAT) in much the same way that the PSAT is a mini-SAT.  The new exam will have the same three multiple-choice components: “Critical Reading,” “Math,” and “Writing.”

There has been no evidence of significant demand for the new exam from teachers, parents or guidance counselors. Every middle-school student in the country is already tested in reading, math and science under federal “No Child Left Behind” mandates. Prodded by news media questions, the College Board was unable to name a single educator who had called for such a test, aside from the firm’s directors and members of the committee which designed it. The sales model for Readistep calls for it to be marketed to school districts, which are being encouraged to buy it for administration to every student.

The initial reaction to Readistep was heavily negative. Bloomberg News Service titled its story “College Admissions Race Can Start Sooner with Planned Test” while TIME Magazine used the tongue-in-cheek headline “With a Pre-PSAT, the Joys of Testing Start Even Earlier.” In an editorial asking whether the new exam was “really necessary,” the Los Angeles Times said, “The College Board’s bid to build the SAT empire comes at a time when colleges are cooling a bit to the tests,” noting the rapid growth of test optional admissions policies. Nearly as many students in the high school class of 2008 took the rival ACT as the SAT (see Examiner, December 2008). 

“Score Choice” begins in March 2009 for both the SAT and SAT Subject Tests. In theory, it gives test-takers the right to review their scores before deciding whether a college should receive results from a particular test administration. Some admissions offices praised the plan as potentially reducing stress by guaranteeing that a student’s chance of acceptance will not be hurt by one day’s poor performance. At the same time, several prominent institutions, including Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Chicago, have announced that they will still require applicants to submit all scores.

At the core of the disagreement about implementing “Score Choice” is whether it gives students from upper income families a further advantage because they are able to pay for multiple test-administrations and select the highest results. Historically, the College Board has come down on both sides of the issue. From 1993 to 2003, those who took what were then called SAT II exams were allowed to submit only their best scores. But that policy was rescinded after the College Board recognized, “There are real equity concerns,” according to a senior official from the testing firm. 

The controversy and confusion about what scores must be submitted to each institution is likely to increase the stress of the admissions process for many students. To the extent it encourages applicants to take additional tests in the hope of better results, Score Choice will add to the College Board’s revenues, just as Readistep will do. To many observers, enhancing the College Board’s bottom line is the real agenda behind both policies.