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by Roberto Noya, Owner & Counselor, College Counseling and Consulting LLC

Recent announcements by the President of the College Board, David Coleman, about revisions to the SAT have generated a good deal of commentary.  As an independent college counselor and former admissions and enrollment management professional, one who recalls well the hoopla that surrounded the changes made to that exam in 2005, I am puzzled by the fact that most of the announcements and commentary ignore the most central question: will the proposed changes improve the predictive value of the SAT?

The same thing happened before the roll out of the 2005 exam, which featured a new writing section.  The College Board itself spent more time explaining how the new version would mirror students’ classroom experiences and thereby reduce anxiety without ever claiming that the new exam would improve the exam’s core purpose: helping to predict performance in the first year of college. Given that predicting this performance was the overriding purpose of this standardized test, I was as puzzled then as I am now by the claim that the revised version would be better than the previous version of the exam. (To this day, the College Board has not claimed that the 2005 version predicts performance in college better than its predecessor, though before leaving the admissions profession, I noted that the writing exam was actually a better predictor than the Critical Reading or old Verbal sections were at two of my institutions.)

In his hour-long video statement about the changes in the College Board and its most famous product, the SAT, Mr. Coleman references the expected predictive value of the new exam only briefly and only to say that the Board anticipates the predictive value will remain about the same—“perhaps” better.  Why then, the dramatic assertions of an improved exam? 

Perhaps the goal of making test takers feel less anxious about taking the SAT is the reason everyone thinks the revisions will improve the exam.  Perhaps, as many commentators assume, the College Board is merely seeking to become more like the ACT in an effort to win back market share among college bound high school students. For all of the buzz about students feeling more comfortable with the ACT, however, the predictive value of that exam has remained consistently about the same as the SAT.  Unless we can show that an exam that evokes less anxiety in its takers yields a more accurate assessment—and I have not seen such data—we should worry more about the predictive value of standardized admissions tests than about whether they seem familiar to the students taking them. 

(For the record, we are preparing our students to compete with international students who are used to far greater pressures on their college entrance exams—indeed to exams that constitute nearly all of their college applications. American colleges and universities are the exception, in that they often use a holistic approach to evaluating applicants and generally value performance in challenging academic courses above a score on a standardized test.)

Perhaps the really important changes at the College Board come from its automatic processing of four college application fee waivers for low income students or its new partnership with Khan Academy, seeking to provide test prep to everybody for free. (It is interesting to note that Mr. Coleman never says that test prep created inequality in educational opportunities; rather, he laments that it has created “the perception” of such inequality.  There is no convincing data showing that the vast majority of test prep programs increase scores dramatically.)  I, for one, applaud any effort to prompt talented low-income students to cast a wider net and consider more challenging schools in their college search.  It is, nevertheless, the announcements about revisions to the SAT that have dominated coverage of Mr. Coleman’s remarks.  I wish that the College Board and all of the commentators on the new version of the SAT would concede more explicitly and emphatically that the new version of the SAT will be no better (or worse?) than the old versions at fulfilling the exam’s most central purpose: predicting performance in college.

Finally, like many others, I wonder what the reaction of international students will be to including disproportionately among the reading passages on the new SAT excerpts from key documents of American history. On the one hand, I wonder if familiarity with those documents will really help predict a college student’s GPA; on the other hand, why would a student from another country be surprised to find references to the history of the U.S. in an exam designed for American colleges and universities?