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SAT changes a good move

The role of the SAT depends on where you sit in the admissions process. For parents and high school students, it is an arduous summit that must be crested to enter the college of their choice. For college administrators, the SAT and its cousin the ACT are their best hope at assessing prospective students’ chances of success based on a national norm.

From its inception in 1926, the assessment, known then as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, has had its critics.

Even its creator Carl Brigham was uncomfortable about the idea of his test being used as a national college entrance exam. He criticized the standardized testing movement, writing that it was based on “one of the most glorious fallacies in the history of science, namely that the tests measured native intelligence purely and simply without regard to training or schooling. The test scores very definitely are a composite including schooling, family background, familiarity with English and everything else.”

The difficulty of separating academic ability from the advantages of class and income has long plagued the SAT, and we applaud the National College Board’s latest effort to rectify that problem and level the playing field for college admissions.

The changes to the test will refocus the test on the material students actually are responsible for learning, versus their test-taking abilities or access to test prep courses that allow many a well-intentioned student to game the system.

Starting in 2016, the three-part exam will no longer dock points for incorrect answers. The essay part of the test will be optional, and the test’s familiar 1600-point scale will return.

Last redesigned in 2005 by the College Board, this new SAT is meant to be more connected to the actual requirements of a college education. A reading and writing section, for instance, will ask students to quote from passages to support their answers, rather than having them fill in blanks, regurgitate arcane vocabulary or pick a solution from a list of choices.

Ideally, schools would like to use the SAT and ACT to predict student success. But in recent years, colleges, including the University of Texas, have relied less on the SAT and more on other factors such as grade point average and course load to make their college admission decisions.

The test, even in its current incarnation, still has value, especially in evaluating the math abilities of students from a variety of schools — public, private and charter — across states with differing standards.

If done correctly, the changes will lessen the advantages posed by income and background. Motivated parents with access to resources currently can pay more than $1,000 for test prep courses that promise to raise SAT scores by 200 points or more. This advantage essentially adds to the price of admission for low-income, first-generation and minority students who may either be unable to pay for test prep courses or who are unaware of the role of these courses in rigging the college admissions system.

The changes to the test will not completely eliminate the advantages that income provides. Access to private tutors and the elimination of the instability that is part and parcel of living in economic distress will nearly always produce better academic preparation. It is still true that no single test can or should be used to determine a person’s academic and economic future. But allowing more room for other factors to be considered in admissions by reducing the cultural and economic bias inherent in test taking is good for everyone.

At a time when colleges and universities are being held increasingly accountable for student success and graduation rates, they should have tools that actually predict success rather than the size of their students’ bank accounts.

— Austin American-Statesman