Editorial Board: Overhaul Not Enough to Redeem the SAT

This week, the College Board announced major changes to its flagship product: the SAT. Although the three letters no longer actually stand for anything—the full name of “Scholastic Assessment Test” was retired in 1993—we assume that every student here at the Claremont Colleges has his or her own personal associations with the name. Along with GPA, SAT is one of those anxiety-inducing acronyms that often dominate discussions of college applications.

Recent conversations have tended to focus on the failings of the SAT. Despite its ubiquity, the test has come under fire for cultural and socioeconomic biases within both its content and its pay-to-play availability. Data provided by the College Board show higher scores among white and Asian students compared to other ethnicities, as well as a distinct correlation between family income and total score. As these patterns have become more well-known, the validity of the SAT for gauging either college readiness or student performance has become a point of significant debate.

We feel confident guessing that the College Board had these debates in mind when they announced the current overhaul, set to go into effect in 2016. From our perspective—all three members of this Editorial Board took both the SAT I Reasoning Test and SAT II Subject Tests—the updates are moving the SAT in a positive direction.

The changes to the somewhat infamous timed essay, for example, reflect an encouraging shift toward aligning the test with collegiate expectations and assignments. By turning the essay’s focus away from personal exposition and toward synthesis, the College Board is bringing the essay in line with the type of writing that is prevalent in most college classes. And, on the other hand, the announcement that the essay will be optional should lower the pressure—maybe even the incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome among furiously scribbling juniors.

Switching to vocabulary words that are related to college-level studies is another good change. In our opinion, some of the words featured by the SAT are arcane and unlikely to be helpful to a modern writer. If we’re going to make vocabulary a qualification, we ought at least to emphasize terms that will be recurrent in college reading and writing. (Any bets on whether we’ll see “hegemony,” “patriarchy,” and “liminality” in the new crop? Foucault-based analogies, anyone?)

But even these overdue improvements aren’t enough to assuage our greater concerns about the relevance of the test to college academics. Nor are the College Board’s new initiatives to make test prep more easily available to lower-income students enough to shake our impression that standardized testing still favors those students with the time and money to go through personalized tutoring. In fact, we’re still not sure the SAT ought to be a mandatory part of college applications at all. And don't worry, the ACT isn't safe from this assessment, either.

We reported last week that Pitzer College—which since 2004 has made standardized test scores optional for applicants within the top 10 percent of their graduating class or with a GPA above 3.5—has noticed no significant difference in the academic performance of students who did not submit scores. And many colleges have long stressed that these numbers are only one component of a holistic evaluation of applicants. With that in mind, we find ourselves asking why standardized tests remain mandatory for so many colleges and universities.

We believe that submitting standardized test scores ought to be optional for—but not excluded from—all college applications. For students who believe that their SAT or ACT scores do not fully demonstrate their academic abilities, making submission optional would provide a mental and economic respite. Recognizing that some students do see these numbers as a useful complement to the other components of their application, we believe that leaving the door open for test score submission would allow everybody to highlight his or her strengths. The Claremont Colleges should lead the way in the challenge to the costly and implicitly privileged institution of standardized testing.