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New SAT or No SAT?

New SAT or No SAT?”The SAT is changing in March 2005,” screams College Board’s Web site, complete with a photo of diverse students in what, presumably, is a preparatory context. “Students shouldn’t worry,” the site goes on to say. “The College Board will help them prepare with information, sample tests, and free and low-cost preparation materials.” Then there are links to a new SAT Preparation Center, where parents can drop between $20 and $70 to help prepare their youngsters for the SAT.

Some say the new SAT is an improved version of the old one. It adds more math, especially advanced algebra, an essay section and testing on grammar, according to some reports. Supposedly, it will rely less on rote reasoning and more on critical thinking. Will it give college admissions officers better information?

Because no matter what the SAT measures, it matters to young people who are trying to get into college. The spate of anti-affirmative action lawsuits makes a prevailing and warped form of thinking clear. A student who earns 1600 on the SAT is more admissible than a student who earns 1500 or one who earns 1400. Why? What do these scores actually measure?

According to some researchers, they only measure a student’s likelihood to succeed in her first academic year, all else being equal. But this means we know that low-scoring students, while no less worthy than their competitors, could improve their performance with support — tutoring, counseling and learning communities. Thus, in some ways, SAT scores can be used as a diagnostic tool, pointing counselors to areas where a student might need extra help. But the troglodytes from the Center for Individual Rights are stuck at using the SAT as a college passport, minimizing its usefulness for those who would like to use it as a diagnostic.

Indeed, ambivalence about the SAT may well have led to its new iteration. According to FairTest <> hundreds of colleges — including Bowdoin, the University of Mississippi, Connecticut College, Texas A&M, and others, do not require the SAT as a condition of admission.

New test or old test, it is an expensive test. Students have such anxiety about their SAT performance that their parents spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, for preparation materials that range from the $70 book to the $1,000 coaching. What does this infusion of capital mean to students of color, especially those of modest means, whose parents can barely afford the $70 handbook, not to mention the $1,000 coaching? It means that the racial economic gaps that already exist are being widened. It means that the youngsters that can’t afford the SAT prep classes are likely to earn lower scores, and to have access to a different set of colleges, than their income-enhanced competitors.

To be sure, there are community organizations that offer SAT prep courses, more than one way to skin the SAT cat. Still, the staggering sum that the parents of some mediocre White students spend to get their progeny into college makes it clear that moderate- and lower-income Black and Brown students aren’t playing on a level-playing field. What to do? I think we need to ask hard questions about what the SAT measures and whether it is the right tool to use to determine college admission.

This is an especially important question in the HBCU context. Bennett College President Johnnetta B. Cole noted that her students come to the campus with both academic prowess and promise, and her campus has the capacity to make every sister a star. Her thinking echoes that of one of her predecessors, Dr. Willa B. Player, the first Black woman to serve as Bennett president. In Player’s time, the Bennett Bulletin noted, “The individual student is the most important person in this process,” insisting “the person in a reality-centered environment is the chief motivating force at Bennett College.”

The reality-centered environment has caused controversy at Benedict College, where President David Swinton has asked that freshman and sophomore grades reflect a combination of skill and content mastery, as well as a mastery over attendance and completion of assignments. The goal, Swinton says, is to make sure that students who have been inadequately prepared learn good learning and study habits. The fallout was that there was something fishy about Benedict’s grades. While the program is young and needs evaluation, it resonates with the energy of a “reality-centered environment” where faculty, staff and administrators meet students where they are and take them from a place of promise to a place of prowess.

Do SATs help or hinder the journey? Will the new SAT be used as a diagnostic tool or as an assessment tool? What instrument will be developed to capture the prowess in a student of promise? Instead of new SATs, we might want to consider a policy of no SATs. To be sure there is a role for skill measurement, and in the parlance of the streets, nobody is trying to “hate on” a profit-making corporation that administers millions of tests a year, with only a fraction being SATs. At the same time, there is so much energy, mystery and emotion invested in the SAT process that it probably needs to be re-evaluated, not simply amended. After all, when a test spawns a multi-million dollar industry of coaching, teaching and support aids, one has to ask whether it has become a monster that needs to be destroyed.

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