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Retooling the Test: Can a New SAT "Deliver Opportunity" to Low-Income Students?

In 2015, kids taking the SAT will be better off reviewing their science and history class notes than carrying around the ubiquitous reams of SAT-vocabulary flash cards. Among heaps of changes that the College Board will likely make to the SAT, according to David Coleman, the organization's president, one main overhaul will be the test's application to day-to-day coursework. New questions will require students to analyze data, draw conclusions from text, and support arguments using factual evidence from literature, history, and science.

Moreover, according to Coleman, the College Board's redefined role will not only be to assess students' preparedness for college, but to help low-income students become more aware of colleges that might accept them, and scholarships that might pay their way. Top colleges continue to lag in their efforts to draw low-income students of all ethnic groups, with only 14% of students at these schools coming from families in the lower 50% of incomes. According to Coleman, the College Board needs to take steps not only to assess students, but also to provide them with information about economic and educational opportunities available to them; when high-achieving, low-income students receive more information about colleges and scholarships they might aspire to, these students are (unsurprisingly) more likely to apply outside of their local comfort zone.

Some of the College Board's changes are clearly motivated by the specter of the ACT, a "rival" test which used to be primarily offered in mid-western states, but is now gaining traction and popularity in all areas of the country as an SAT-alternative. The ACT has several critical differences from the SAT, for the uninitiated: While both the current SAT and the ACT have Reading and Writing sections, the SAT currently focuses on vocabulary and more verbally complex reading passages, while the ACT does away with vocabulary definition questions in favor of questions about punctuation and a longer, more involved focus on writing mechanics. In the Reading section, the ACT features articles in four known categories (as opposed to the random selection offered on the SAT), as well as a Science section, which makes students analyze graphs. The Math section of the ACT more closely aligns with a high school math curriculum, while the SAT features some logic games, which are more similar to LSAT questions, and does not include trigonometry. (When I'm talking to students about which of these tests they should take, I usually tell them, "try both"--but that, generally, kids who are more visual or interested in math will like the ACT more, while kids who consider themselves more "verbal" may find the SAT plays to their strengths.)

But to whatever extent these changes have been more socially minded, there is a definite potential to benefit poorer students--even separately from efforts to raise college awareness. One of the on-going problems with the current SAT is not that it is "harder" than the ACT (as some would argue) but the fact that, more than its rival, it focuses on material outside of the scope of a high school curriculum. For wealthier students, an SAT tutor becomes a mandatory accessory; for many poor students, this type of service is out of reach, leaving them to take a test that is disconnected from what they're learning in their regular classes with only sparse opportunities for preparation. As a result, the SAT under-predicts college success rates for poor students; often students with strong grade-point averages get low scores on the SAT, due to confusion over how to prepare for a test that does not include material from their classes. If proposed changes to the SAT include a better overlap with school subjects, as Coleman seems to suggest that they will, this would be a useful and relevant means of helping to close the performance gap between wealthy and poor students nationwide.

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