What's happening? Changes made to the SAT

By Nabi Dressler


It’s almost spring, and you know what that means: the horrid snow melts away, the sun shines brighter, the temperature goes up and of course you can’t go outside and enjoy any of it because it’s testing season, lucky juniors!

This time last year, I traded in sleep for test prep books, and since my plan was (is) to leave the Midwest after high school, I took the SAT for kicks.

The SAT is a semi-painful, five hundred-hour (OK, three-hour, 45-minute) achievement test that more and more Prospect students take each year because colleges weigh the ACT and the SAT equally; take both tests and you can simply apply to schools with the higher score. Easy peasy, so long as you don’t lose your sanity in the process.

It’s been announced that in 2016, some major changes to the SAT are being made. The more significant changes are that the quarter-point penalty for each question wrong will be eliminated and the essay portion of the test will be optional.

It should be noted that, surprise, there’s a positive correlation between higher SAT scores and higher income level of students’ families. To combat this, the College Board claims it’ll improve accessibility to free prep materials so that students of all economic levels will be able to prepare for this test.

It’s about time.

First off, getting rid of the penalty system is fantastic because students won’t have to second-guess every bubble they fill in. I’m kind of bummed the writing portion’s optional, though, because last year I got one of those fun philosophical prompts and for 25 minutes, I felt like a unique snowflake and not a statistic.

But let’s talk about how unfair this whole standardized testing thing is in terms of money (because that seems to be The Thing that makes people listen). Some students’ parents pay thousands of dollars for SAT prep but that’s blatantly unfair because rich parents=more access to test prep=higher probability to get better test scores=acceptance to better colleges=potentially higher-paying jobs (at least that’s what people have been drilling into my brain since junior high). But if you don’t get into that top-tier school because of your low test score on the one school-provided SAT/ACT (Prospect and Midwestern schools generally don’t provide a free SAT, anyway) you took since your parents didn’t want to pay for four SATs/ACTs, it’s your own fault you’re still poor; you just didn’t work hard enough. It’s not a cycle of poverty or anything. The system’s totally not working against you.

I know, I know, life’s not fair. Forgive my wishful thinking that something like education should be a little more meritocratic.

Of course, parents want their kids to get the highest scores possible, but when my mom offered to send me to thousand-dollar test preps, how could I say yes to that, knowing what a financial burden that’d be on us, without feeling like the worst daughter on Earth? I opted for library books and a private tutor with a reasonable rate, but I still felt guilty as heck, and so did a lot of my friends going through similar processes to prepare.

You do have free options. Just click around Google for free SAT or ACT test prep materials, borrow books from your library. There’s plenty you can do on your own. How this stacks up to rigorous prep with licensed teachers, though, I couldn’t tell you.

Granted, lots of people don’t agree with judging prospective college students on test scores. Some of my teachers speak out about the limitations of standardized testing. Some colleges make submitting test scores optional and instead require a graded essay, for example.

But the fact is, some colleges get tens of thousands of applicants and really only have time to look at GPA and ACT/SAT scores (cough, U of I), and some colleges straight-up automatically give more scholarship money to students who hit certain test scores, and since money talks, students give into the system, and so do parents.

Some people spoke to me differently about my future once I hit 30 on the ACT, and that certainly opened my eyes. I can’t tell you the number of people who told me their higher-than-average ACT scores and beat themselves up for “being so stupid,” which they aren’t, but the point is, standardized testing made them feel incompetent and unprepared for college when class grades are better indicators of college success than test scores, anyway. I mean, during one of my ACTs, I was super-sick and kept nodding off during the science section. That test score’s not very indicative of anything besides the fact that I had a bad cold, but what if that’d been the only ACT I took due to financial issues? If you answer is “Tough luck,” you might want to check your privilege, but I digress.

If I were the College Board/the ACT people, I’d adjust the income cutoffs for test waivers to let more low-income students get their testing fees waived however many times they want. I’d try to get the elite test prep academies to offer more scholarships to high-achieving, low-income students. I’d try to level the playing field because when you’re not middle class, the entire college process is so incredibly headache-inducing because when you study for these tests, you know that if you don’t score high and earn enough scholarship money yourself, you’re not going to [insert college here] because of the number of figures on your parents’ paychecks. The fact that you can do everything right, work diligently for four years, sacrifice your health and your social life, get into your dream school and still not be able to attend because of your family’s’ financial status (unless you want 200K in debt for just a bachelor’s) is one of the worst things about education in America, and the fact that one test score is heavily considered by some college admissions offices  leaves students with no choice but to strive for that 1600 and that 36 at any cost.

The SAT, created in 1926, has flaws. SAT founder Carl Brigham, a Princeton professor, said the test measured a person’s “schooling, family background, familiarity with English, and everything else.” A foundation like that is obviously problematic. Steps like the ones the College Board are taking in 2016 are certainly steps in the right direction, and I applaud them, but as I see more and more kids cave under pressure of looming achievement tests and whisper about classmates’ intellect based on their scores, I can’t help but wish the College Board would hurry it up, distribute free prep materials to anyone signed up to take the SAT and so forth.

I’ll leave you with a quote from John Katzman, president and founder of the Princeton Review, in his telling interview with Frontline. The man literally produces test prep books for a living, some of the very ones I used, yet says the SAT should be eliminated ASAP (take this, like every opinion, with a grain of salt, but it’s a POV worth considering):

“The SAT is a scam,” Katzman told PBS. “It has been around for 50 years. It has never measured anything. And it continues to measure nothing. And the whole game is that everybody who does well on it, is so delighted by their good fortune that they don’t want to attack it. And they are the people in charge. Because of course, the way you get to be in charge is by having high test scores. So it’s this terrific kind of rolling scam that every so often, somebody sort of looks and says–well, you know, does it measure intelligence? No. Does it predict college grades? No. Does it tell you how much you learned in high school? No. Does it predict life happiness or life success in any measure? No. It’s measuring nothing. It is a test of very basic math and very basic reading skill. Nothing that a high school kid should be taking.

“…There’s a widening gap between rich kids and poor kids. We can no longer say it’s because of the schools or because of the unfairness of society. Now we have to admit that we’re part of the problem.”

Juniors, chin up. You aren’t a number. You’re a multifaceted human being. Don’t let one bad day and one bad test score define the way you judge your brains. Hopefully the College Board and universities will continue to rethink the importance they place on test scores and the way they compare students’ potential. Hopefully prep materials, classes and tutors will soon be more readily available to low-income students so everyone can have a fairer shot at getting into the colleges they’ve worked to get into for years.