Shorter is not Necessarily Better
On January 25, 2022, the College Board announced that it will begin administering a new SAT in 2024 that is shorter (two hours rather than three-and-a-half hours) and entirely computer-based. No more number 2 pencils with bubbles to fill in. The test will now supposedly be “easier to take, easier to give, and more relevant.”However, unless the new SAT is also more equitable, its place in the college admissions landscape will continue to diminish.
Desperate to become “relevant,” College Board has designed yet another version of its increasingly unpopular exam. (For those keeping track, this is the fourth or fifth major change since 2014 – no penalty for wrong answers, removed the obscure vocabulary section, added an essay section, subtracted an essay section, and now has gone to this new version entirely.) Recognizing that colleges are increasingly making the tests “optional,” it’s hoping to convince more people to take this so-called less stressful, more streamlined test.
The disastrous roll-out in 2020 of a digital version of Advanced Placement exams revealed the deep digital divide among our nation’s students. However, College Board is confident it can deliver a fair digital test by no longer penalizing students who lose power or get disconnected during the exam or by loaning devices to students who do not have them. College Board apparently has not learned about the implications of the digital divide for students who might get flustered when they lose internet connection or don’t know how to use the loaner-for-day, while other students take their tests with expensive personal devices of their own.
More than 1,800 U.S. colleges no longer require a SAT or ACT score. These changes have been instituted in the name of fairness since it is well known that test preparation services advantage high-income students and that these tests do not accurately measure the skills and abilities of students with disabilities, who often have to plead for extended time to get a decent score. The University of California system has gone even further and eliminated all use of the SAT and ACT in admissions and scholarship decisions. On January 26, 2022, the Cal State system, the nation’s largest public university system, indicated that it will be completely eliminating the use of the SAT and ACT in admissions for all 23 of its campuses.
The University of California system, which is barred from using race as a factor in admissions, just admitted its most diverse class ever without the use of test scores. With the United States Supreme Court on the brink of ending all forms of affirmative action, other universities should be following California’s lead in eliminating tests scores from any consideration whatsoever. Thus, CSU assistant Vice Chancellor for Enrollment April Grommo rejected the idea of test optional admissions, explaining “So you really end up in a situation where students feel that they need to take an SAT or ACT in order to get some advantage within the admissions process.” In a largely test optional year, we saw that wealthier students were more likely to submit SAT scores.
This seems to be a peculiar time to promote yet one more version of the SAT. Not surprisingly, College Board isn’t so bold as to claim this test will be “fairer.” The test prep services now have two years to gear up with more personalized tutoring for yet another kind of test for high-income students to demonstrate they have mastered.
The socio-economic and racial impact of the new test is predictable and widely noted. The disability implications, however, are often ignored. The University of California initially eliminated the use of test scores in admissions when a judge ruled that students with disabilities had not been able to access the tests during the pandemic. Any new version of the SAT needs to be fair and valid for students with disabilities to overcome the challenges faced by the last version.
The digital test is shorter because it relies on adaptive testing. Students get different test questions on subsequent sections based on how they performed on earlier questions. Adaptive testing has never been validated as being fair to students with disabilities, and it has been a cause for concern among test developers for over a decade.
For example, students who are neuro-diverse often have uneven skill sets. They may perform well on so-called higher-level tasks but struggle with more basic skills. With an adaptive testing model, they are less likely to have an opportunity to demonstrate their higher-level abilities. Further, adaptive testing models do not usually allow students to correct their previous answers in a way that changes the algorithm that has already chosen their next test questions. So, a student with ADHD who is struggling with concentration and may have learned to go back and check work as an adaptive strategy, an important exam-taking skill that does not work if the exam has already taken a different direction based on initial responses.
Finally, students with anxiety disorders are not likely to find this new type of test less stressful. The answers to each question become even more high stakes as they serve as gate keepers to whether a student is even assigned more difficult questions.
The standard response to accessibility problems for students with disabilities is tell them to request extended time (if they can get it). But these kinds of problems are endemic to the test design. They can’t be easily “solved” through extended time or other standard accommodations.
Because of these built-in elements of unfairness, College Board should be required to publish data demonstrating the validity of their test for a range of student populations, including students with disabilities. Federal regulations do not permit institutions of higher education to administer unvalidated tests that have a disproportionate impact on students with disabilities. California and New York both mandate the disclosure of SAT questions and answers, and both require evidence of validity and fairness for different student groups.
College Board has not announced in its press releases that the new test would be “fairer.” A fair test would have to be validated under established norms for all student groups. The University of California found no alternative exam that could sufficiently eliminate bias. “The test really remains the same,” trustees were told by Sylvia A. Alva, executive vice chancellor of academic and student affairs of Cal State, indicating that the “new” SAT will not change its plans to ditch the tests in admissions.
With the new SAT, College Board has the burden of proving that “shorter is better,” and not just for some students.
Ruth Colker, Distinguished University Professor & Heck-Faust Memorial Chair in Constitutional Law, Moritz College of Law, The Ohio State University
Marci Lerner Miller, Partner, Potomac Law Group, PLLC, Co-counsel for plaintiffs in Smith v. UC Regents