New SAT Is College Board's Answer To Greater Student Opportunity
By Daniel R. Porterfield, Ph.D.
Published on Forbes' SchoolBoard blog March 6, 2014
Are we doing all we can to propel America’s students into college and career opportunities?
So asked College Board President David Coleman yesterday as he outlined an ambitious, multi-pronged “opportunity agenda” that will define the future work of the 114 year-old non-profit organization known primarily for its iconic SAT and Advanced Placement (AP) exams.
As both a college president and one of at least 20 College Board trustees who work in higher education, I see enormous promise in this agenda.
It’s terrific, for example, that the College Board will now make it possible for many more students to take AP courses — the rigorous classes that help students prepare for college-level work and give them the chance to start earning college credit while still in high school. Through recent research, the College Board learned that students whose PSAT/NMSQT scores predict they would excel in AP courses often don’t have the opportunity to take them — and studies show that the more advanced classes students take before college, the better they do as undergraduates. I remember well the surge of confidence I gained in high school after realizing through my AP English and history results that I was on track to do strong academic work in college.
It’s equally important that the College Board will now do much more to help lower-income students learn about the wide range of college opportunities available to them. This effort is crucial to society because right now, hundreds of thousands of lower-income students per year apply to only one college — typically one that’s familiar and close to home — rather than looking into institutions that may have the best resources for them, including strong financial aid and multiple academic options.
To address this problem, Coleman announced, every low-income student who takes the SAT will now receive, with their scores, fee waivers to apply at no cost to any four colleges of their choice. If this approach succeeds, more low-income students will apply to and be accepted at the top colleges and universities for which they’re qualified, and that will enrich the education of the entire student bodies of those schools.
And then there’s the changes Coleman described for the SAT, which millions of students take to demonstrate their college readiness. Two generations ago, the exam was redesigned to increase its ability to predict college success, and that’s what’s needed again today.
Debuting in 2016, the new SAT will have two major objectives: First, to make what students need to know more reflective of college-level work and less arcane; and second, to create an exam that assesses student learning and skills best developed in high school classes rather than through test-taking strategies typically drilled in expensive test prep programs. As Coleman said boldly, we must acknowledge that both the SAT and the ACT “have become disconnected from the work of our high schools.”
The new exam promises to include a writing section that lets students show their strength at analyzing texts — including the founding documents from American history — and writing effectively and analytically. It will also have a math section that places more emphasis on the quantitative and problem-solving skills predicative of successful advanced learning. And, the College Board is committed to sharing with students, teachers, parents, and counselors exactly how the redesigned test will be formatted and scored, and precisely the kinds of questions that will be on it.
Some may say that these changes won’t matter, because a test is a test. But I’ve been impressed with the College Board’s focus on improving students’ learning and lives, by the creative ways it is seeking to expand students’ access to college, and by the quality of the assessment and research teams that Coleman has assembled to guide these changes.
Moreover, my institution, Franklin & Marshall College, is test optional, meaning applicants can submit two graded essays instead of SAT or ACT results. I’m pleased that the College Board has explicitly recognized the value of allowing students to demonstrate their college readiness in multiple ways, and has stated clearly that the SAT should only be used in combination with other information when making decisions about students’ lives and futures. And I note with appreciation that students can utilize one of those four fee waivers to apply for free to Franklin & Marshall, even if they ultimately choose not to submit their SAT scores.
Coleman ended his announcement emphasizing that the College Board will need to listen to its stakeholders and make improvements along the way. That’s true, of course. But the organization’s new approach is certainly directionally correct. Expanding Advanced Placement courses, dismantling barriers for low-income students applying to colleges, and improving the SAT to restore an emphasis on classroom learning impress me as three long strides for students.