For many college-bound high school students, the SAT test is as much part of their landscape as prom dresses and homecoming. But it has had its share of changes and challenges, and now David Coleman, the new president of the College Board, has announced that yet another such change is underway.
The SAT was first administered in 1926 to prospective college students as part of an effort to help democratize American higher education. At the time most of the elite colleges, like those that are now within the Ivy League, were largely filled with young white men of a particular caste. They were mostly affluent, northeastern and educated at New England prep schools. When James Bryant Conant, president of Harvard, decided in 1933 to start a scholarship program for gifted boys from underprivileged backgrounds, he looked for a test that would help identify students based on their ability rather than their background. He found it in Carl Brigham's Scholastic Aptitude Test, a test developed earlier as an intelligence measure for army recruits. By 1938 the test had become standard in scholarship applications for the members of the College Board, and by the time war ended it had become a way to evaluate college applicants generally.
Since the SAT was first developed, it has undergone tremendous changes. The name changed, first to Scholastic Assessment Test and then to an empty acronym. The original 1901 test had nine sections (including sections on Latin and Greek); by 1928 it was down to a mere seven verbal sections; and in 1930 it was split between a math and a verbal section. By 1994 calculators were introduced to the math section; a new writing section was added in 2005; and in 2008 the College Board pushed to make score choice universal.
Many of the changes to the SAT have come in response to broad criticism of its content and use in evaluating college applicants. Those criticisms have centered on two issues in particular. The achievement gap between students from different socio-economic and racial backgrounds, and gender too, that is quite rightly of huge concern to American educators, is also reflected in SAT scores. Commentators argued that the gap could at least in some part be explained by the test's susceptibility to coaching, which means that kids from more affluent families who can afford better test preparation will inevitably score better. Critics of the College Board have also pointed to evidence of cultural bias in the SAT, and this led to the elimination of analogies from the verbal section in 2005.
Another significant criticism of the SAT has focused on its ability, or lack thereof, to predict success in college. The test lacks what David Hubin called "face value" - little about the SAT reflects anything that students will actually do in college. Its usefulness therefore hinges on its predictive value. As part of the 2005 changes, the College Board added a third section on Writing to address concerns that the old verbal section did little to test the writing ability and readiness of prospective college students.
The 2005 changes to the SAT were prompted in large part by a call from the Richard Atkinson, then president of the University of California system, on colleges to abandon the SAT as a college entrance exam because, " an overemphasis on the SAT is compromising our educational system." And indeed, many colleges have done just that - Bowdoin College, one of the top liberal arts institutions in the country, did so back in 1969 already. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest) lists about 850 such test-optional schools in its efforts "to ensure that evaluation of students, teachers and schools is fair, open, valid and educationally beneficial." The majority of American colleges, however, still require some standardized testing from applicants in their attempts to assess the college readiness of applicants.
In his recent letter to counselors, David Coleman of the College Board argued that changes to the SAT would focus on college readiness. "We will develop an assessment that mirrors the work that students will do in college so that they will practice the work they need to do to complete college." Mr. Coleman had previously led efforts to develop the Common Core Standards, and not surprisingly he said that changes to the SAT 1 would allow the test to better align with the Common Core. He did not offer any specific information about the changes, though Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed points out that Coleman has been critical, for example, of the writing section for requiring students to write rather than to analyze.
The general consensus is that at least for the foreseeable future, colleges are unlikely to drop their testing requirements, as flawed as they understand these to be. After all, in the US where there is no national examination of the sort that students in Britain, France or South Africa must complete to graduate from high school, the SAT offers admission officers one of the few tools with which to compare students across the patchwork quilt of American high schools, and across the world. But pressure on the College Board will only increase, and indeed, this year was the first in which more students completed the ACT, a test whose four sections rely heavily on the coursework students encounter in classroom. It brings to mind the 2008 report of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), in which the organization pointed out that anxiety about the role of standardized testing in college admission has never been higher. NACAC called for the greater use of tests, like subject tests and International Baccalaureate exams, which are "more predictive of first-year and overall grades in college and more closely linked to the high school curriculum." The College Board have clearly taken note.