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Editorial: Put to the Test; Revising the SAT

If the SAT were just an ordinary test, hardly anyone would care about the changes being made to it. But the SAT is a lot more than a test. It’s a rite of passage for 1.5 million high school students who aspire to post-secondary education. It’s an instrument by which high schools and colleges measure their worth. And it’s a symbol of the vaunted meritocracy, where high scores are believed to be a ticket to prestige and prosperity.

The College Board, which administers this famous college-entrance examination, announced last week that the format would be fundamentally revamped by 2016. The new test will eliminate the mandatory essay question; end the penalty for guessing, whereby points are deducted for wrong answers; and pose questions more closely aligned with the high school curriculum. The test will put less emphasis on esoteric reading passages and obscure vocabulary words, focusing instead on texts, words and mathematical concepts students ought to know in preparation for college.

The changes, welcome as far as they go, are intended to address some of the widespread criticisms of the exam, which dates back to 1926. At the time, educators at Harvard were looking for a general intelligence test that would help them identify talented scholarship students to diversify the privileged campuses of the elite Ivy League. They adapted an IQ test used by the Army, and it eventually became the most widely used college-entrance exam in the country (though slightly more students now take the ACT than the SAT). But the test has strayed from its original purpose, and its effect is not what its idealistic founders, eager to engineer a classless society, intended.

Indeed, many rightly accuse the SAT of perpetuating privilege. Far from serving as an agent of diversity, the test reinforces social inequality. The data clearly show that as family incomes increase, so do scores on the exam. Between the poorest and richest students, there’s a 400 point gap on a 2,400-point scale, according to Fair Test, a testing watchdog group. High-scoring students generally attend America’s best high schools and have the resources to pay for the services of the vast test-preparation industry and private tutors. Whether coaching substantially improves the scores is debatable, but there’s no question that poor and minority families are at a distinct disadvantage when taking the test.

“We need to get rid of the sense of mystery and dismantle the advantages that people perceive in using costly test preparation,” said College Board president David Coleman. Rather than discourage test preparation, the College Board is collaborating with a test-prep company, Khan Academy, to provide free online coaching for the new SAT. The implication is that studying for a high-stakes test more closely connected to the high school curriculum is a better use of time than learning the various tricks advertised to increase one’s score.

Apart from the important fairness issues, detractors challenge the premise of the current SAT test, arguing that it fails to accurately measure general intelligence, student achievement or academic potential. Grades, Advanced Placement exams and other factors are better indicators of what students know and how likely they are to succeed in college, according to research.

Little wonder, then, that so many people ­— students, teachers, parents, high school counselors, and college presidents and professors, among them — are unhappy with the SAT. The College Board deserves credit for listening to their complaints and for revising the test so that it measures the skills students should be learning in high school. But whether a brand-new test can “deliver opportunity,” as the College Board’s new slogan would have it, remains doubtful. No standardized test is going to be fair to all or free of cultural biases. The best outcome would be for the SAT to lose its mystique and to become just another test ­— one used judiciously by colleges and universities when deciding whom to admit.