David Coleman, president of the College Board, wants everyone to know that the new SAT, which students will take for the first time Saturday, is just as good as the old test at predicting who would do well in college. Of course, he also wanted to be clear, in introducing the SAT to a conference of the Education Writers Assn., that his test was new and improved as well. Left unmentioned: The revamp might do more for the College Board's bottom line than for the needs of colleges, universities and students.
That's not to say the College Board hasn't improved the SAT. For one thing, it makes the silly essay portion of the test optional; it was both gameable and, in terms of the way it was scored, hardly an indicator of who can write well. The new SAT also reformats the testing of vocabulary, eliminating the $4 words that required weeks of drill-and-kill memorization and then would never be used again. Plus, there's no longer an extra penalty for guessing wrong.
Also to its credit, the College Board has added services to help the students who can't afford thousands of dollars' worth of private test prep. Free online prep and practice tests are available through the nonprofit Khan Academy. And students whose income is low enough to qualify them for free test taking also automatically qualify for waivers of college application fees, which normally cost about $80 per college, not an insignificant sum for working families.
But most important is that the new SAT is supposed to align with the Common Core standards that have been adopted to one extent or another in 40-plus states,
including California. This includes a heavier emphasis on reading — even in the math problems — and more critical thinking skills. That's what colleges say they want, and what students are lacking.
What Coleman didn't spend much time discussing are problems with the SAT that haven't been solved. The test may require more critical thinking skills, but it is still coachable; it isn't going to put an end to the big and growing high-end test-preparation industry that gives affluent kids a leg up on the system. Poor kids get two free shots at taking the SAT; kids with more money can take the test five to 10 times, and some of them do. Then many of the colleges allow them to "superscore" — report only their best scores on each section.
I recently met a sophomore who's taken the test five times. His mother said she had spent $10,000 on test preparation so far, and his scores had risen by 300 points.
And what about Coleman's assertion that the test has its usual utility for college admissions officers? If the SAT is a reflection of the Common Core lessons, and those lessons reflect the skills that colleges need to see in students, why isn't the new test a better predictor of freshman college success than the old one?
It's not that either test, old or new, would do a bad job of identifying a good student. Studies have shown that the SAT is almost as good as a student's grades at predicting college success during freshman year.
More important, using the standardized test in addition to grades gave admissions officers a better picture than grades alone.
Beyond freshman year, however, research on the SAT's predictive value gets mixed reviews. A study of colleges that have gone test-optional — applicants can report their scores or not — found that students who didn't submit their scores fared just as well throughout college as those who did, though they might have opted for easier courses.
A recent report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education suggested that at some schools, the SAT might be a good predictor of success — for instance, a mediocre math score probably indicates a kid who would struggle at MIT or Caltech — but at others, it might not make much of a difference.
One thing is certain: The new test will help the College Board grow its business. The SAT's once-weak competitor, the ACT, was chosen as the required admissions test by 15 states that pay for the first sitting. But the College Board recently managed to peel off a couple of those states, probably in part because of the SAT overhaul.
More generally, our national obsession with test scores and their meaning of course redounds to the College Board's financial benefit.
Some states are starting to look at whether they can reduce the number of tests taken by high school students by substituting the SAT or ACT for other standardized tests. That would dramatically expand the reach of both organizations into the increasingly lucrative kindergarten-through-12th-grade testing — a big incentive to rewrite the test around Common Core.
The new SAT is probably a better test than the last one, and admissions officers may prefer it. Its greatest value, however, is to the organization that produces it and the test-prep industry as a whole.
Karin Klein writes about education for The Times editorial board.