Big changes are coming to the SAT this year, and the impact that they will have on students is a topic of fierce debate. Will they provide a leg up to students who are put at a disadvantage by the current test format? Or will they make disparities between the scores of high and low-income students even more pronounced?
In this article, I'll go over both sides of the argument and provide my own take on how the changes to the SAT will affect the education gap.
What Is the Education Gap, and How Does It Relate to the New SAT?
When we talk about the “education gap," we mean that disparities in income (and race, as a related factor) continue to mirror disparities in access to educational opportunities and overall quality of education for students. Many people have argued that tests like the SAT only serve to widen this gap between poor and wealthy students. It has been proven time and again that higher parental income correlates with higher SAT scores.
In making these new changes to the SAT, the College Board aims to combat this issue by creating a test that puts students on an equal playing field regardless of income. The most significant changes that will take place on the new SAT include:
- the elimination of Sentence Completion questions in the Reading section
- a shift in focus on the Math section with less geometry questions and more questions dealing with algebra, fractions, and trigonometry
- grammar questions in the Writing section that reference larger passages rather than individual sentences.
There will also be questions on the Reading section that ask students to interpret data in charts and graphs. Overall, questions will be more directly related to real-life scenarios and less confusingly worded.
Some with a more cynical view of the changes say that while this is the College Board’s public rationale behind changing the test, its real reason is business-related. Since the ACT is now more popular than the SAT, the College Board is changing the SAT to align more closely with the ACT so that it can reclaim its standardized testing market share. While the College Board says that their changes will combat the education gap by testing what students actually learn in schools and making the test less “puzzle-like”, some people think that it will either exacerbate existing problems or change nothing about the current system.
In the next section, I’ll go over the arguments presented by both sides.
Will the New SAT Close the Education Gap?
There are valid arguments from each camp on this, and we won't know for sure who is correct until the new SAT has been out for a few years. I'll present both sets of ideas so you can get an idea of the logic behind each point of view.
Theory 1: Yes, It Will Close the Education Gap
Some people (such as spokespeople for the College Board) argue that the new SAT will remedy many problems that plagued the old testing format.
One major difference is that students won’t have to face Sentence Completion questions, which test obscure vocabulary words that students with from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to know. The elimination of these questions might allow underprivileged students who have a great deal of potential to score higher on the test. The new version of the SAT will focus on knowledge of the nuances in meaning of more common vocabulary words in the context of larger passages. Arguably, this is a more logical way of testing vocabulary when considering what students will need to know to be prepared for college academics and careers.
The College Board is also partnering up with Khan Academy to offer free SAT prep services. They argue that this will allow low-income students to gain access to some of the same advantages that were once only available to wealthy students. They have also streamlined the process for obtaining fee waivers for low-income students. The College Board will provide four automatic college application fee waivers for students who were eligible for fee waivers on the test.
The new test will also incorporate questions that are founded in real life scenarios and contain less confusing wording. The new SAT focuses on questions in context rather than in isolation (which is why reading and writing are now all passage-based). This means that students without preexisting knowledge of specific grammar rules or vocabulary words might have the potential to succeed on the test if they can infer wisely from the context of a question.
This new formatting also means that there are less learnable “tricks” on the test that could trip up students who don’t have the opportunity to use test prep services. Students who aren’t familiar with the format of SAT questions will be put at less of a disadvantage. The more predictable content on the new test in the form of specifically outlined passage subject matter will give students a better idea of what to expect even if they haven’t been able to prepare extensively for the test.
Theory 2: No, It Won't Solve the Problem of the Education Gap (and Might Make It Worse)
Others have argued that the new SAT will exacerbate existing problems with the test and widen the education gap. The College Board says that the new SAT will level the playing field by testing what students actually learn in schools, but this new testing format could make existing differences in high school quality all the more obvious in score results.
The purpose of the SAT is to provide a common metric to measure student academic ability apart from the subjective determinations of each high school. If the new SAT tests what students have learned in school more directly, won’t that just lead to more disadvantages for low-income students who attend poorly resourced public high schools?
Although questions on the new SAT will focus more on interpreting meaning in context rather than vocabulary and grammar skills in isolation, this probably won’t eliminate an advantage for wealthier students who attended better high schools. These students’ inference skills and knowledge of how to interpret arguments and words in context will be better developed through a higher quality education. Also, the fact that the new essay asks students to analyze the author’s argument rather than formulate their own opinions means that low income students might be put at more of a disadvantage if they haven’t been given proper instruction on how to read analytically in their high school classes.
Even though the SAT will now offer fee waivers to all low-income students and is partnering up with Khan Academy to offer free test prep for all students, this doesn’t mean that wealthy students will lose their advantages. The fact that free test prep is being offered means that it's still possible to prepare for the test. With the new test, a market for specialized test prep services that are more individually tailored and more expensive will continue to exist. Wealthy students will still have the potential to access advanced test preparation services and potentially be able to improve their scores more drastically than students who only have access to free materials.
All this could potentially lead to increased inequality in the college admissions process as a result of greater differences in scores. Low-income students may be put at an increased disadvantage on the new test due to a lower quality education overall, creating even greater class divisions in terms of access to higher education and career opportunities.
Now that we’ve heard both sides, what’s the verdict? It’s hard to tell because we don’t have reliable score data on the new SAT yet.
In my opinion, there are compelling arguments made by both sides of the debate. I think that the changes to the SAT will have a minimal impact on the education gap that currently exists between high and low-income students. It’s great that the College Board is committing to offering free prep services and fee waivers for low-income students, but as long as it’s possible to prep for the test, there will be a market for prep services that cost more and provide better results.
It is reasonable to argue that making the test more straightforward could help put lower income students at less of a disadvantage, but sometimes I have to wonder if this is a case of a “race to the bottom” in the standardized testing market. The SAT is trying to compete with the ACT to offer the "fairest" testing model, but in doing so they may be compromising the test's value as an assessment of academic ability. Since it’s too hard to actually improve the quality of the educational system, companies are creating less challenging tests to make everyone feel better about these basic inequalities. Students who go to good high schools and come from wealthier backgrounds will most likely earn higher scores on the SAT regardless of how unbiased the format of the test is.
It’s possible that everyone will get slightly higher scores on the new SAT, but the income gap will remain the same. Until we commit to combating the root of the problem — poorly funded high schools with overwhelmed teachers — on a large scale, I don’t see the education gap changing much, regardless of the introduction of the new SAT.
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Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.