Tomorrow morning, hundreds of thousands of high school students will anxiously make their way to testing centers across the country for the first offering of the “new” SAT—the latest version of the iconic, 90 year-old college entrance exam.
The College Board has set high expectations for the new test, which is supposed to track high school curricula more closely by scrapping sophisticated vocabulary, focusing more heavily on reading, and dispensing with difficult math puzzles. In his 2014 speech announcing the changes, and in a subsequent public relations campaign, College Board President David Coleman presented the reforms as a social justice cause. The new SAT would be less convoluted, more difficult for rich kids to cram for with expensive tutors, and level the playing field for minorities and low-income students. Coleman even brought the historian Robert Caro on the stage to read a passage from his book about Lyndon Johnson’s anti-poverty efforts—a not-so-subtle suggestion that changing the SAT would similarly expand opportunity for those at the bottom of the ladder.
It was not quite clear then how this was supposed to work (Can’t rich kids hire tutors for the new version of the test, too? If the tough questions are scrubbed from the test, won’t it lose its utility for colleges trying to assess applicants’ academic ability?) and it is still not clear today, on the eve of the new test’s debut. As two SAT tutors write in a critical essay at Hechinger Report:
Revising the SAT is unlikely to do much of anything for low-income and first-generation students unless the content or structure of the old test was inherently biased against them. Ultimately, no change to the test will actually erase socioeconomic disparities because tests are diagnostic tools rather than instruments of change.
Think of the SAT as a thermometer. Both report symptoms of underlying disease, and we thus want both measures to be as accurate as possible. The new SAT might be that. We do not however use a thermometer to treat pneumonia, and neither should we try to use the SAT to redress the deep socioeconomic inequities that it reflects, or perhaps even exacerbates.
We could be wrong, of course. The scores from tomorrow’s administration could indeed show a dramatic narrowing of the performance gap between privileged and less-privileged students, even as it continues to differentiate students by skill level (as the Hechinger Report piece says, “what good would a reading test be that doesn’t penalize people who are not good at reading?”). But we have yet to see any persuasive evidence that the new test will have this effect.
As we’ve written before, “We have the terms ‘privileged’ and ‘disadvantaged’ for a reason: Some people are born into more fortunate circumstances than others. Tinkering with the SAT won’t change this fundamental fact of life.” The College Board should do everything in its power to make the SAT as fair and predictive as possible. But it was probably a mistake—and a distraction from other, more important efforts—for the test-maker to create the expectation that its revamped exam would deal a major blow to socioeconomic inequality in America.