Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

What Does A New SAT Mean for Higher Education?

By Kiara ButlerPublished January 1, 2017

The recent changes made to the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), play a significant role in altering admissions to universities and colleges. The changes drastically altered the exam format, and fail to implement common systems to evaluate the results. In order to protect an exam which plays a primary role in college admissions, it is necessary to implement a score conversion system and regulations to closely review the exam on a frequent basis.

Last month, the newly revised Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) made its debut across the nation with nearly 300,000 high school students sitting for the exam. The test's changes, which have gained significant attention in recent weeks, include removing the penalty for guessing, making the essay optional, eliminating the vocabulary section, and placing an emphasis on math commonly used in higher education. Along with these test alterations comes significant debate pertaining to the apparent change in difficulty as well as the impact the new test will have on college admissions.

First, many find the exam to be much easier than past years, given its reduced use of vocabulary and geometry. College Board (who created the SAT) addressed these concerns by explaining that each section has maintained the same number of words overall. Second, many question how low-income and English as a Second Language (ESL) students will be hurt, as these individuals are less likely to have access to prep classes or be familiar with the basis of the exam (given, that it is closely tied to the common core state standards, which is a newly implemented program in the United States). What concerns many, is this link to the common core, which has not been fully implemented in schools. College Board again addressed concerns, by explaining their plan to provide free, 24/7 exam assistance to all students. These changes, as well as the current debate surrounding the new format, begs the question, is the SAT properly preparing students for higher education?

The biggest areas for concern, have the ability to greatly alter one's application process to colleges and universities. Consider the murky conversion charts that have been created the last few months, in an attempt to convert exam scores from one format to the next. The new test was administered in October 2015, and all institutions were required to implement a system to evaluate the two formats since students have the option to submit scores from either exam until Fall 2018 (at which point, all incoming Freshman who take the SAT will need to provide scores from the new format). This is concerning, as there is currently no universal system in higher education to evaluate students on their scores. Further, universities must now decide whether or not to require that students complete the now optional essay. This would create a bias system, given that any school requiring the completion of the essay would inherently be reducing their number of applicants (as our current education system demonstrates stark differences in the development of educational skills in the early years of schooling). In regards to primary or secondary education, there is much debate surrounding the new implementation of common core state standards. First, there is not a national requirement that schools implement these standards. So, how will students at these schools be properly prepared for a test that is heavily linked to standards they don't have to meet? Additionally, connecting this exam to standards that have not been fully implemented (7 states have yet to adopt common core) and results that have not been proven (the earliest the standards were implemented was the 2013-2014 school year), is risky. We have not seen substantial data to support to claim that students are prepared for this exam, which in turn, alters their ability to score high and access the best institutions in higher education.

The SAT had commonly been a resource used to assess students and their abilities, but creating arbitrary score reviews and drastically altering the exam based on minimal data is problematic. Rather, we need to create a system in which students benefit from taking tests and are assessed fairly across all institutions. First, one should implement a system used by all universities in order to asses scores in the coming year. Given that students can submit scores from either exams for the next few years, a conversion chart is necessary but all colleges/universities should be required to evaluate students using the same system. This would ensure that certain schools are not using the SAT as a way to filter out "bad test takers". It would also eliminate the possibility of admission officers subjectively accepting students based on arbitrary scores. Resultantly, students would have access to an equal playing field, and schools would increase the number of students qualified to attend their university. Second, the exam changes should be heavily reviewed, as the changes that were recently made completely redesigned the exam. Times have changed significantly in the past few years, but that said, they continue to change rapidly. It might be time to consider an exam that is updated every few years - to prevent a large overhaul of changes in one swift motion. The SAT had the ability to help students further their academic career, and in turn their financial situation (as higher education is directly linked to earnings and unemployment), demonstrating the need for a true, unbiased exam that brings greater opportunity to all individuals.