New SAT gets better reviews from students, but doesn’t end debate on testing bias

Chicago students sat for the new SAT for the first time on March 5 (Morgan Gilbard/MEDILL).

By Morgan Gilbard

Education experts argue that the new SAT still punishes students for not being white, wealthy or male—a bleak verdict that places the majority of CPS students at a disadvantage in college admissions. The new test aligns more closely with high school curricula and eliminates penalties for wrong answers, but critics say it still does not address long-standing biases in its overall content.

Administered for the first time on March 5, the test’s release marked over 20 years of criticism of the College Board’s approach to measuring the potential of high school students as they head to college.

“The ‘new’ SAT may look more consumer-friendly, but it is not a better test,” said Bob Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (also known as FairTest). “The College Board also appears more interested in trying to slow the test-optional movement than improving the test’s measurement precision.”

Almost 30 years of SAT statistical averages and recent White House studies validate claims of racial, economic and gender gaps in the college application process. However, a 2014 study by University of Georgia found that colleges and universities do not increase the diversity of their student body by eliminating the testing requirement— a study that College Board cites in its defense of the new SAT and its denial that the test is biased.

“It’s interesting when others assign motives to why we’re doing things. It’s about not just offering a test, but delivering an opportunity,” said Zach Goldberg, College Board’s senior director of media relations. He also cited evidence that SAT scores, combined with high school grades, are the best predictor of college success.

In the past several months, College Board rolled out several initiatives designed to promote college access, including free prep programs and application vouchers for qualifying students.

According to Goldberg, College Board surveyed the 8,089 students across the country who took the test on Saturday and reported that over 70 percent said that the test reflected what they’re learning in school. A majority of the students surveyed prefer the new test to the old format.

“There’s a lot of people who claim to speak for students and we just like to go directly to students,” said Goldberg. “And it’s clear that they’ve had a really positive response to the changes we made.”

High demand for test-prep

Still, the booming $840 million test-prep industry is another factor that exacerbates the test’s potential biases. With some wealthier parents spending thousands of dollars in hopes of improving their child’s SAT score, there’s a high demand for programs like University of Chicago’s Whatever It Takes (WIT), a free test-prep course designed to bridge the achievement gap.

“$1000 to $2000 is a lot to pay for anyone—even if you’re middle class,” said Andy Rapoport, WIT’s director. Approximately 200 students enroll in each quarterly session, with some students traveling for as long as 90 minutes to attend each class while also juggling part-time jobs to pay family bills. But for those who couldn’t otherwise afford test-prep, the hefty commitment is worth it.

“There are a lot of barriers that people don’t exactly think about when realizing what kind of opportunities are available to you and taking advantage of those opportunities,” Rapoport said.

Amid a national conversation on making higher education more accessible, fewer colleges and universities now consider the SAT as a fair tool to measure student achievement. More than 50 schools overturned their testing requirements after College Board announced the new SAT— a silver lining for the 90 percent of CPS students of color who would potentially face bias during the exam.

CPS reported that 59 percent of 2014 graduates enrolled in college, with enrollment for black, Hispanic and Asian students falling 10 points below the national percentage. White CPS students exceeded the national data by approximately 7 points.

However, student persistence in college is a far more telling number for the White House and local organizations like OneGoal.

“There’s a lot more we could do in preparing students for when they get to college and not to just get to campus,” explained Lindsey Nurczyk, a director at OneGoal, which provides support to help students get into college—and stay there. “We have to ask: what are the roadblocks? What can you anticipate?”

Students do not necessarily avoid bias by taking the SAT’s alternative, the ACT, which presents similar biases in content, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. The ACT is required by more local universities than the SAT, so the ACT is often the test of choice.

However, scoring well on the test is just one aspect of the battle for disadvantaged students. Nurczyk of OneGoal sees how hard disadvantaged students must work after enrolling: “To me, one of the biggest things we could do when we talk about college readiness is not just preparing for a test, but that you make sure when you’re applying to schools, you can have agency in the process.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story had the wrong spelling for the last name of Andy Rapoport, director of Whatever It Takes.

Chicago students sat for the new SAT for the first time on March 5 (Morgan Gilbard/MEDILL).