We are witnessing the SAT’s slow suicide.

Breaking News: On May 11, 2020, the Los Angeles Times reported that the University of California President recommended that the SAT be suspended for U C admissions. That is huge! Undoubtedly, as the U C goes, so will the nation.

Yet for some of us SAT-watchers, it was not “breaking” news. We have watched the SAT over the last many years slowly destroy itself as the testing gold standard. Let’s call it a self-induced suicide (an oxymoron, undoubtedly).

Sadly, as I see it, the SAT, which is used all over the world, has lost the right to call itself the gold standard in testing — a benchmark that is valid and reliable. A valid and reliable test is one that measures what it purports to measure and reports scores that others can rely on. There may have been a time when, if the SAT says it — then it is so. But, that seems to have ended a while ago. While the LA Times does not cite the lack of validity or reliability of scores, my sense is that the long sad saga that got us here has been part of the woodwork for a while. In short, these scores no longer are what they purport to be.

I see three main reasons for this decline. Most importantly, the test prep and the accommodations industries; and also, the slow drip of errors by the College Board, which sponsors the SAT, along the way.

First. The test prep industry. A bit of history.

The test prep industry was not always there. The SAT was developed in 1926 as an aptitude test to encourage and promote testing by students who may have been diamonds in the rough — underprivileged students who did not attend fancy schools or live in fancy homes. Like my immigrant brother, who scored 800 in math on the SAT in the 1960’s — a fact that changed his life. Over the SAT’s almost 100 years, we’ve come a long way from its initial purpose. It no longer tests “aptitude.” Instead, its goal is to predict freshman year grades in college.

NPR reported, “SAT prep was born in a Brooklyn basement in 1938, when Stanley H. Kaplan began tutoring students on how to prepare for standardized tests. Word spread, and soon students began arriving from all over the country to learn techniques for passing standardized tests. In the early 1970s, Kaplan expanded his business…., opening 70 centers by 1975. The Washington Post Company — owners of The Washington Post — bought the company from Kaplan in 1985.”

“SAT prep was big business, and…Kaplan Educational Centers, would become the largest such operation in the nation. Another company, The Princeton Review, was growing as well. Like Kaplan had in 1938, John Katzman began his company by tutoring a handful of New York students after he graduated college in 1981.”

There are other companies in the test-prep business and “[m]illions of students have spent have spent millions of dollars preparing for the SAT.”

For full article, please visit: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/sats/test/history.html

For a long time, the College Board vigorously maintained that one can’t prepare for the SAT,students and parents who could afford to do so, doled out lots of money for test prep told another story. Other students were left behind. Eventually, even the College Board had to acknowledge that some students’ scores improved with test prep, and teamed up with Khan Academy to develop test prep material.

So what do today’s scores actually mean? Are they valid and reliable?

Second. The accommodations industry. In 2002, the College Board made a fateful decision — to stop ‘flagging’ test reports of students with disabilities who took the test under nonstandard conditions. Soon thereafter, the ACT followed suit. See my 2003 story about this decision at https://www.educationnext.org/disablingthesat/

The flag was designed to give score readers (such as college admissions officers) notice that the test had been given with extra time or other accommodations/ modifications. Therefore, the scores needed to be read with care as they were no longer standardized. Since the test was normed as a timed test, extra time modified its validity standards. Amazingly, ending the flags meant that nobody was notified of that fact. Slowly, over the years, the numbers of students taking the test with 50% or 75% or more time grew from 2% to close to 5%. And, quite predictably, most students who used extra time were vying for the small sliver of selective college seats. We began to see that the affluent used this avenue far more than disadvantaged students; for example, we started to see reports that at some exclusive prep schools 40% of their students had extended time.

It’s fair to ask what today’s scores actually mean. Are they still valid and reliable?

Over the years, in these two ways, the shine on the gold standard test — also called a common yardstick — has worn off. Today’s test results need to be read carefully — with a whopping grain of salt. Do we really know what they mean? Are they still reliable predictors?

Third. Over the years, the College Board has been confronted with controversy. In 2005, it recalibrated the SAT and added a writing component. Later, it changed the scoring, even as recently, SAT scores have declined. At another point, it tried to neutralize advantages of males over females in test results — even as females turned out to be better college freshmen students, belying the SAT’s stated purpose. Recently, it toyed with adding an “adversity score” which it dropped after facing an avalanche of criticism. Controversy continued about flaws in the “new” SAT, as well as the College Board’s handling of scoring errors that affected 5000 students. All the while, the rise of “test optional” college continued.

Drip. Drip. Drip. Perhaps not surprising, for an almost 100-year-old test.

Thus, in reading that U C President Janet Napolitano recommended that the SAT be dropped from admissions decisions (at least on a trial basis), we SAT-watchers were not surprised.

The next big question will be — assuming we still have colleges with admissions criteria after the pandemic, how will their admissions officers admit students in the future? Will the focus be on academic excellence and preparation or will it slide to other societal goals? You’re invited to join us watchers. Stay tuned.

Miriam Kurtzig Freedman is an attorney, reformer, and author. Her latest book is Special Education 2.0. And, check out her pandemic medicine bottle art!

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