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5 myths about the SAT

The changes to the SAT recently announced by the College Board will hopefully make it a more relevant, more useful and more fair test. The essay section that can be so easily gamed will be reworked and made optional. The math and reading-and-writing sections will seek to assess skills students may actually need in college. But will the redesigned SAT come closer to realizing the test’s mythic status? Here are some of the myths it is up against.

1. The SAT is the best measure we have for assessing whether a student is ready for – and can succeed in – college.

The College Board maintains that the SAT “has a proven track record as a fair and valid predictor of first-year college success.”

But the most reliable studies don’t bear that out. Jesse Rothstein at Stanford University calculates that on its own, the SAT explains a mere 24 percent of the variation in college freshman grade-point averages. By contrast, high school GPA alone explains 34 percent.

Only when combined with other factors does the SAT start to become a useful predictor.

Certainly, the version of the test now offered isn’t an indispensable predictor of college success. And it doesn’t look like the redesigned test, to be offered starting in 2016, will justify its outsized role in selective college admissions, either. “The predictive validity is going to come out the same,” Cyndie Schmeiser, the College Board’s chief of assessments, told the New York Times.

2. The SAT has helped establish a national meritocracy.

The SAT does not recognize merit, and it has failed to move many talented but disadvantaged young people into our top schools. Caroline Hoxby’s research finds between 25,000 and 35,000 students each year, whose grades and SAT scores are in the top 5 percent of their high school class, do not attend the nation’s best colleges due to lack of information.

Who will do well on the SAT and go to the best colleges is mostly settled before students sit down to take the test. The great sorting of young Americans is linked to having the right parents who have the right income and, more important, the right education level. My research with Jeff Strohl has found that highly disadvantaged students (who tend to be black, attend public schools with high poverty rates and come from low-income families with high-school-dropout parents) can be expected to score 510 points lower than average students and 784 points lower than highly advantaged students (who tend to be white, attend private schools and come from wealthy families with highly educated parents).

The SAT could be scored to reward striving, providing additional credit to students who outperform expectations based on their social and economic status. After all, the point that students reach says less about merit than does how far they had to come.

3. Test-prep courses substantially improve scores.

Organizations that provide test-preparation courses are happy to perpetuate this myth. Anxious parents and students have bought into the myth, making test prep an $840 million industry.

But test-prep courses are not the best use of parents’ money or students’ time. Independent studies show that the effect of test preparation on SAT performance is marginal, boosting scores by 30 points, on average.

4. The SAT can predict career success.

Consulting firms, software companies and investment banks are among the employers who ask job candidates to dig up their SAT scores, according to a report last month in the Wall Street Journal.

It’s a poor recruiting strategy. The SAT assesses a narrow band of academic reasoning ability. The test does not do a good job of measuring “whether someone has the raw brainpower required for the job,” as the Journal put it.

It does not assess the skills and personality traits, such as conscientiousness, that drive professional success.

Far more important for predicting a successful career, at least in terms of earnings, are how much education you get and what you major in. A teacher who scored high on the SAT still typically earns less than a manager with a low score. A worker with an associate’s degree can expect to earn $1.7 million over a lifetime, compared with $2.3 million for a worker with a bachelor’s degree, and $2.7 million for a worker with a master’s degree. And college graduates who majored in engineering and information technology earn $70,000 annually, while humanities, arts, education, psychology and social work majors earn less than $50,000.

5. The changes planned for 2016 will bring a 20th-century test into the 21st century.

The College Board hopes that the redesigned test will make the SAT more relevant – at a time when some colleges have stopped requiring the SAT and in the face of competition from the ACT and new Common Core assessments.

But aligning the SAT with Common Core standards, reducing the obscure vocabulary and narrowing the focus of the math section won’t reverse the declining importance of the SAT in the American education system.

An assessment truly fit for the 21st century would test a broader array of knowledge, skills and abilities. Given the increasing importance of science, technology and engineering, for instance, a single science passage in the reading section, as is planned, is hardly enough. A full science section, as the ACT has, would be more appropriate.

Why should we rely on an imperfect proxy of “aptitude” when other metrics, such as the Common Core subject tests, can tell us the real gaps in students’ understanding?

Anthony Carnevale is the director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. He was vice president of the Educational Testing Service from 1996 to 2003. He wrote this for the Washington Post.

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