Earlier this year, College Board President and CEO David Coleman faulted his own company’s test, the SAT, and its main competitor, the ACT, for being “disconnected from the work of our high schools.” In an effort to address that disconnect, among other goals, the College Board announced it would be revamping the SAT, with a new version debuting in spring 2016.
Calling Coleman’s comment a “brave and honest assessment,” Jasmine Mcleod says she hopes the changes will address some of the SAT’s historical drawbacks. “What the College Board was doing was not working, and that was reflected in the fact that a lot of school systems at the secondary level, as well as the postsecondary level, were moving toward the ACT. So, they had to look at how they were going to meet the need, and I do believe the amendments made will benefit students,” says Mcleod, a scholar-in-residence at the American Counseling Association who also served on ACA’s former School Counseling Task Force.
High school students will be pleased to hear they can shred their flashcards with words such as abjure, inchoate and pulchritude because obscure vocabulary words will be absent from the new SAT. Gone also will be the previous penalty for guessing, meaning points will no longer be deducted for wrong answers.
The revised SAT will revert back to the old 1,600-point scoring scale (a “perfect” score on the current exam is 2,400). In addition, the essay portion will be optional. The exam will continue to be offered on paper, but it will also be available online.
And in an effort to make prepping for the exam a bit more equitable, the College Board is partnering with Khan Academy to create free preparation materials that will be available online. Students from low-income backgrounds will also continue to be granted fee waivers, and on its website, the College Board says that it is “working with higher education institutions to ensure that every single income-eligible student who takes the SAT can apply to four colleges for free.”
Lynn Linde, a past president of ACA and the director of clinical experiences in the school counseling program at Loyola University Maryland, calls the elimination of the penalty for guessing at correct answers a “friendlier thing for test takers.” She also notes that Coleman, who joined the College Board as its president in 2012, was part of the group that created the Common Core standards. Not surprisingly, some of the changes to the SAT are aligned with the Common Core, which “makes absolute sense,” says Linde. The Common Core is a set of national educational standards for K-12 students in English and math that dictate (not without some controversy) what students need to know by the end of each grade level.
At Lincoln Northeast High School in Lincoln, Nebraska, all high school juniors take the ACT. Only 25 to 30 students each year — out of a class size of more than 300 — take the SAT. Part of the reason for Lincoln Northeast’s low SAT usage rate has to do with geography. Historically, the ACT has been dominant in the Midwest. The other part of the reason is that the high school is part of a pilot program in Nebraska to use the ACT as the state’s test for high school juniors, meaning all juniors take the exam for free. The SAT, on the other hand, is offered at only one public high school in Lincoln.
But the ACT has also gained ground nationally since the last SAT revision almost a decade ago. A recent analysis by The Washington Post found that when comparing the high school classes of 2013 and 2006, the number of students taking the SAT had dropped in 29 of the 50 states. Usage of the ACT fell in only three states during that time. The ACT also beat the SAT in total usage among students in the high school class of 2012, according to the newspaper.
Ruth E. Lohmeyer, the counseling center team leader at Lincoln Northeast High School, says that in her opinion, the ACT is a more straightforward exam — more “common sense” — than the SAT. In addition, she says, the ACT has offered a more accurate picture of college readiness for the students who take it.
However, Lohmeyer, who also facilitates the American School Counselor Association High School Professional Interest Network, has high hopes that the changes coming to the SAT will have a positive impact. She anticipates that at her school, these changes will lead to more students choosing to take both the ACT and the SAT.
In the past, Lohmeyer says, the perception among students was that the SAT was only for their peers who were the very best test takers, voracious readers or headed to Ivy League schools. She predicts a greater number of her students will now feel more confident and consider taking the SAT due to some of the revisions being made to the test.
Target of criticism
One of the primary criticisms of the SAT over the years has been the correlation between students’ scores and their socioeconomic status. Students from more affluent families and who attend schools in which there is an emphasis on college preparation and honors-level classes typically fare better on the SAT, says Linde, who served as the chair of the former ACA School Counseling Task Force.
“That’s not to say that every poor student doesn’t do as well on the SAT,” Linde says, “but there are years of evidence that students from inner-city schools, for example, don’t do as well on the SAT as students from their suburban counterparts.”
Another major criticism revolves around whether SAT scores offer accurate insight into a student’s future success at college. “The research has shown that SAT scores are not a good predictor, that GPA is in fact the better predictor of student success,” Linde says. “That’s why there’s been such a movement … [It’s] not a groundswell, but you’re beginning to see more colleges that are not requiring either the SAT or the ACT or are making it optional for students.”
Loyola University Maryland, where Linde works, is one of those universities that has made SAT and ACT scores optional. Linde says the preliminary data since the change was made in 2010 at the universityindicate almost no difference in achievement between students who were admitted when the entrance exams were required and those who were admitted when the exams became optional.
Whether a high SAT score predicts success in college or instead reflects a student who could simply navigate the exam successfully is a fair question, Mcleod says. “You have students who are great students, who have very high GPAs, [who] take Advanced Placement courses, but they’re just not good test takers,” she says.
On the other hand, some teenagers aren’t strong students but have families that can afford access to expensive preparation courses for them, Mcleod says. “It’s not so much that they’ve studied more or that they know more,” she says. “Rather, their test score is a result of them learning how to navigate the test.”
Mcleod, who has worked in Baltimore City and Baltimore County schools in Maryland, says the cost of the SAT exam itself and the cost of preparation courses that help enable students to excel on the exam have presented significant barriers to students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Mcleod says many school systems will pay for the cost of the SAT for these students, but she isn’t aware of any school that could afford to pay for exam prep courses for all of its students. “So [the College Board’s] partnership with Khan Academy is very exciting. We’ve yet to see the quality of the program … but the access to affordable test prep courses was a huge disparity.”
Transportation is another potential hurdle to students from less affluent communities. Students in the suburbs may not have to think twice about getting to an exam location because their parents can drive them or because they have their own cars, Mcleod says, but students in urban areas may need to plan a lengthy commute on public transportation to get to an SAT test site.
And as Mcleod points out, the stakes are high. College entrance exams such as the SAT represent access points for college-bound students. In many instances, scholarships and grants can be attached to how well students perform on the test. This means that how a student does on the SAT on a given Saturday morning can determine if he or she will go to a two-year college, a four-year college or perhaps none at all.
Still, Mcleod doesn’t believe criticism should be heaped onto the back of the College Board — especially in isolation. “I know the SAT has received its fair share of skepticism, but I’m not so sure that it can be held solely responsible for educational inequities,” she says. “There are disparities that occur way before the SAT is taken that influence a student’s readiness to perform on the SAT or any other standardized test for college access.”
Although the redesigned SAT isn’t due out for another year and a half, Mcleod says the time for school counselors to start understanding the changes is now. High school counselors in particular need to familiarize themselves with the new design and the skills required to navigate and perform well on the test so they can pass that information along to students and their families, Mcleod says.
School counselors must also know how to interpret student performance outcomes and dig into the data of the results, Mcleod says. Valuable information is contained within the scores that students get back, she says, and counselors should be able to disaggregate those scores and explain them clearly to students and their families. “If used properly, these standardized tests can be used to show students and parents how to navigate toward a college or career goal,” Mcleod says. “But the first step is [school counselors] being familiar and comfortable with the data.”
School counselors also need to think through some of the choices that will be presented with the revised version of the SAT, Linde says, including the option of taking the exam online instead of on paper and whether students should choose to do the optional essay. “Counselors will have to understand all those ramifications,” she says.
For example, Linde anticipates that many universities may not require the essay and may not look at it even if one is submitted. So unless the college or university a student wants to attend requires the essay, there may be no clear advantage to doing that portion of the SAT, she says.
Where should high school counselors go to start educating themselves on changes to the SAT? Mcleod recommends visiting the College Board website (collegeboard.org/delivering-opportunity/sat/redesign) and signing up to receive announcements and updates. School counselors should familiarize themselves with the tools and information available there, she says. As the time to unveil the new exam gets closer, the College Board will be releasing more information, and counselors need to know where and how to receive it, she adds.
Mcleod also suggests that high school counselors visit Khan Academy’s website (khanacademy.org) to learn about the free SAT test preparation materials and how students can take advantage of them.
“There’s really a lot of professional development that is required to bring counselors up to speed every time there’s a change because they don’t want to give students and parents inaccurate information,” Linde says. “I think that’s always everybody’s fear when the sweeping changes come in: ‘Do I really understand what is going on now so I can give accurate information to my students and their families?’”
Lohmeyer hopes the College Board will make it easy for high school counselors to get clear and detailed information about the changes coming to the SAT. Both the College Board and ACT Inc. hold annual events in Omaha, Nebraska, she says, but they cost money to attend and necessitate taking a whole day away from school. “A lot of counselors say, ‘I can’t get out of the office for a whole day and pay,’” Lohmeyer says. However, she says, school counselors might be able to take part in a free webinar on changes to the SAT. Anything the College Board can put on its website that is student-friendly and counselor-friendly would be helpful, she says.
Time will tell
As 2016 inches closer, questions about the revised SAT are likely to linger in the minds of students, parents and school counselors alike. Will the changes coming to the SAT represent a net positive for test takers? Will the revised test do a better job of creating a level playing field for students of all socioeconomic backgrounds? Will the exam be a more accurate indicator of a student’s college readiness?
Linde believes it will be a few years before anyone truly knows the answers to such questions. “[We’ll need to be] pretty far down the road before people are going to have good answers,” she says.
Regardless of the results of the revised SAT, Mcleod reminds counselors that it is only one test and one piece of the puzzle that contributes to the total picture of each individual student. “My belief is that no one thing can predict student success. In education, naturally, we want to be able to identify that one tangible, magical quality that students have that will predict whether or not they’ll be successful in this pathway or that pathway so that we can perfect it. Well, it doesn’t work that way because students are individuals — they’re unique.”
As her comments suggest, Mcleod doesn’t believe in the existence of one determining factor when assessing a student’s capability. Therefore, she applauds colleges and universities that try to get a holistic picture of each individual student, with SAT scores representing only one element of that picture.
Although some universities, such as Linde’s, have chosen to make entrance exams such as the SAT optional, those schools are still in the minority. For a wide swath of students across the country, their postsecondary goals will still hinge on understanding how to navigate the revised SAT.
Knowing that school counselors will be called on to help students and parents prepare for the new version of the test leads Mcleod to a larger point about the role of school counselors in today’s high schools.
“I encourage schools and school systems to look at their counselor-to-student ratios,” she says. “When you have a counselor-to-student ratio of 1 to 1,000 students, it makes it very difficult for a counselor to give [a high] level of guidance and counseling to individual students. And when we have systems that are set up that way, the person that loses out the most is the student.”
Lynne Shallcross is a former senior writer and associate editor for Counseling Today. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. Contact her at LShallcross@gmail.com.
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