The New SAT Won't Close the Achievement Gap
After two years of waiting, the highly anticipated new SAT is finally here. Students around the United States began taking the exam this month, kicking off a new era in college-admissions testing that presents a major opportunity to level the playing field for high-need students.
The millions of students in America's public schools who are members of minorities, first- or second-generation immigrants, English-language learners, first-generation college-entrants, and from low-income families face an uphill battle. As the co-founder and CEO of CollegeSpring, a national nonprofit that offers SAT preparation and near-peer mentoring for thousands of low-income students, I see these challenges firsthand every day. When CollegeSpring students took baseline diagnostic exams for the old SAT, for example, they scored in the 12th percentile, on average. While schools sometimes blame this disparity on the SAT itself, the reality is that differences in academic preparation drive the divide.
When CollegeSpring students, along with thousands of other students, take the new SAT for the first time this month, they will experience an exam that is more straightforward and accessible. The new test's content better reflects skills that students learn in school and need to be successful in college and the workplace. Obscure vocabulary has been removed; topics that are closely connected to success in college, such as algebra, have been emphasized; and the essay's rhetorical-analysis focus is more germane to college writing. Even the scoring system is less complicated now that the guessing penalty—long a source of stress and confusion, especially for the exam's least-savvy test-takers—has been eliminated.
That said, many disadvantaged students will still find the exam difficult. Although students now have more time to answer questions, struggling readers, including English-language learners, may lose focus when asked to read critically for 65 consecutive minutes. Disadvantaged students are also less likely to bring a calculator to the test and less likely to know how to use it effectively, and this may hurt their math scores. In addition, many students will skip the now-optional SAT essay, a missed opportunity for students who would not otherwise be pushed to learn how to write an effective five-paragraph essay.
Mitigating the SAT achievement gap is not impossible, but it does require that we recognize that the most-disadvantaged students experience the SAT very differently from their most-advantaged peers. On their baseline diagnostic exams, CollegeSpring students traditionally score an average of 1100—far below the national SAT score average, which is closer to 1500.
For the highest-need students who require substantial skills remediation, human intervention is still required to close this gap. Many disadvantaged students struggle with meeting secondary school standards, such as solving algebra problems and identifying grammatical errors in paragraphs. Some students even find basic arithmetic and other foundational skills overwhelming.
Most students will not invest in SAT preparation in the first place without the encouragement of a credible adult. Additionally, the in-depth coaching required to build basic skills demands sound pedagogy and personalized attention. Coaching and mentorship also help students cultivate crucial soft skills, such as self-efficacy, self-regulated learning, and a growth mindset—all of which are critical for success in college and career.
Given the persistent disparities, other College Board initiatives designed to encourage equity are perhaps even more exciting than changes to the test's content, including that more than 900,000 students have already registered for Official SAT Practice accounts on Khan Academy. Khan Academy and the College Board have partnered to offer official SAT content and test-prep at no cost to students. Also, many large school districts, including New York City, have signed on to participate in SAT School Day to ensure that students from high-poverty schools can take the SAT for free during the school day. Both endeavors are major steps forward in transparency and accountability and will generate invaluable new data that move the field of education reform forward.
The College Board's commitment to a more accessible and equitable SAT is a promising step and should lead to reductions in achievement gaps. While changes to the test alone will not close these gaps, we will soon have much more data to help the students who require additional support become college-ready. If we remain vigilant and use this information effectively, we will be able to equip our highest-need students with the skills required to give them a better shot at a college education and, ultimately, a brighter future.
Vol. 35, Issue 24, Pages 18, 21Published in Print: March 16, 2016, as For Disadvantaged Students, New SAT Is First Step