This was originally published on Intersections South LA on March 27, 2014.
Whenever the SAT gets revised, controversy trails close behind, especially regarding fairness across the board for test-takers from all backgrounds. Many educators have criticized the newest iteration of the test College Board announced this month, which is set to go into effect in two years. But some veteran educators are saying the revamped version holds promise.
Jennifer Hollie, who runs the college prep program for the Challengers Boys and Girls Club in South Los Angeles, feels optimistic about what the new format portends for students from disadvantaged communities.
“For [the College Board] to change the way the SAT is being written is a positive change,” said Hollie, who assists high school students from underserved communities with the college admission process by involving them in comprehensive programs.
“Even with my master’s degree I don’t always understand the words that they’re giving,” she said.
The revisions to the SAT include the elimination of obscure vocabulary words and the penalty for guessing wrong. It will also adapt the essay, which became mandatory in 2005, so that it is an optional test component, according to a College Board press release. The new SAT will have three sections, including reading and writing, math and the optional essay. It will be scored out of 1600 instead of 2400 points. The College Board has also promised four fee waivers per student for college applications and free online test preparation materials for those from low-income families. Many say this will improve accessibility to the test.
The SAT, which initially stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test, was first administered in 1926 as a way to measure pure intelligence, according to the College Board website. Since then, the website states, changes to the test have been made in order to better assess the skills high school students are learning in the 21st century classroom. The test name was later updated to Scholastic Assessment Test.
College Board President David Coleman said the changes were intended not only to make the test more applicable to current college bound students, but also to make it more accessible to economically disadvantaged students.
“What this country needs is not more tests, but more opportunities,” Coleman said in a statement. “The real news today is not just the redesigned SAT, but the College Board’s renewed commitment to delivering opportunity.”
The changes will not take effect until March 2016. The first entering freshman class that will have completed the revamped test will begin college in fall 2017.
University of Southern California Dean of Admissions Tim Brunold said the USC Admissions Department is closely monitoring test outcomes, and will pay particular attention to test changes, such as the essay.
“The essay component of the test is actually a valuable part of the entire test,” Brunold said. “The writing score increases the predictable validity of the SAT.”
Many who welcome the slated changes say they feel the revisions should have been implemented sooner, in order to avoid generations of students being tested on knowledge not directly tied to college material.
“They should have started wording the SAT differently a long time ago,” said Hollie from the Boys and Girls Club. “Students aren’t going to remember half of the words they learn. We need to start building the test to fit the majority.”
Several studies conducted since the 1970s have shown that students from low-income households, specifically Black and Latino students, have not performed as well on college entrance exams as White students. This demographic is especially present in the area surrounding the highly ranked University of Southern California.
In Jefferson Park, a region of South Los Angeles where Challengers is located, Latinos and Blacks make up the majority of residents. In the neighborhoods surrounding USC, 38 percent of residents are Black and 56 percent are Latino.
The income of most residents in the community around USC is lower than in other areas of Los Angeles County, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Hollie said that of the 35 students in the College Bound program, all of them qualify as low-income and only pay a $75 yearly tuition for the program.
Despite these economic barriers that youth from the neighborhood face, Brunold said that South L.A. high school students frequently apply to USC. In the fall of 2013, USC received applicants from students at 73 high schools located in South L.A., he said, and schools like James A. Foshay Learning Center and the California Academy of Math and Science annually have a large pool of applicants.
Brunold said he does not know what impact the SAT changes might have on the number of minority students admitted to the university. USC Admissions statistics indicate that from 2005 to 2012, the number of Black and Latino students admitted has only increased one percentage point.
Hollie said the fee waivers and availability of online test prep materials that the College Board is promising will be critical in making a difference for low-income applicants.
“This would help knock off financial strain our parents face due to the increased cost in application fees,” Hollie said.
Students who grew up around USC in South L.A., like first-year Tristan Baizar, also say they believe the changes can have a positive impact.
“I feel like it would have a great impact on students for having the resources to be prepared,” Baizar said. He had just one worry about possible drawbacks: “The only trouble I see is [the College Board] being able to communicate that those things are out there and having kids actually utilize them without being forced.”
Although there is anticipation over the slated changes in the SAT’s format, many said College Board may still need to consider further changes before it can best measure college readiness among the majority of students.
“Most of the students taking this test will only know so much,” Hollie said. As far as improving the SAT, the new changes represent just “one step of many.” toward making the test fair for all students.