Moving the SATs online won’t restore them to relevance

Associated Press/Alex Brandon

The College Board recently announced a decision to shorten the SAT and to offer it in an online format. This decision will not slow down intensifying trends de-emphasizing high-stakes testing. The time has come to abandon high-stakes testing, including the SATs, and to widen our thinking on the concept of “scholastic aptitude.” 

Educators need to assess students’ learning. Assessments help determine the effectiveness of our methods and curriculum. They can help us to diagnose and overcome impediments to learning. They can assist us in selecting the topics and approaches most likely to help our students achieve understanding.

While assessments are important tools, many educators also recognize that even the most sophisticated assessments are merely snapshots of student learning. Students’ capacities simply can’t be bound by one measure. Over-reliance on high-stakes assessments, like the SATs, to make predictions about students’ future performance is an example of a common logical fallacy called faulty-generalization in which one draws broad conclusions from a small or misleading set of data. 

Policymakers in the preceding decades routinely committed the faulty-generalization fallacy in crafting assessment policy. Many of these outcomes were manifested in K-12 schools as a result of high-stakes testing associated with No Child Left Behind. Two decades later, mounting evidence suggests that these policies have failed in nearly every measurable way, from addressing the achievement gap to improving students’ college and career readiness.

National trends prioritizing standardized tests buoyed other high-stakes testing like the SATs. According to data made available by the College Board, the number of high school seniors who took the SATs rose from around 1.5 million in 2003 to roughly 2.2 million in 2019, an increase of nearly 50 percent. But then something changed.

The College Board’s decision to transition to an online format is a clear response to a sharp decline in the total number of college-bound SAT-takers in 2020 and 2021. While the COVID-19 pandemic is an obvious proximate cause, two broader societal shifts de-emphasizing testing also help explain the fewer number of test takers. 

First, national agreement among Democratic and Republican policymakers on standardized testing that existed since the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has begun to fracture. President Biden signaled a willingness during his campaign to end the assessment mandates. Several states, including Florida, initiated legislation that could end these assessments for students.

Second, the suspension of standardized testing during the pandemic demonstrated that schools could continue their operations without them. At the K-12 level, many educators signaled support for cancelling standardized tests, citing their ineffectiveness and freedom from pressures to teach to the test. In higher education, the proliferation of testing-optional polices proliferated in the enrollment offices of colleges across the country. Taken together, these data points demonstrate the precariousness of the role of the SATs.

For the first time in decades, the potential exists to change course away from tests like the SATs. That said, testing remains deeply entrenched at every level of our education system, as reflected by President Biden’s decision to resume NCLB-era testing requirements and the recent announcement by the College Board to take the SATs online. Our education system has reached an inflection point: Will the standardized testing regime continue or will we change course?

It is increasingly clear that designating a single test like the SATs as a stand-in for students’ performance or potential is a failed practice. Moreover, the entire concept of using a single number to measure “scholastic-aptitude” is outmoded.

We live in a data-rich environment and in an era of personalization and customization. Educators will continue to depend on assessments to measure learning, perfect techniques and chart student growth. Colleges are now utilizing that data, along with other factors that consider students’ unique challenges and potential to re-imagine the admissions process for the betterment of all.

We are approaching an era in which nearly all students may continue their education after high school. Today’s generation of students cannot be separated into wheat and chafe. Higher education institutions should utilize data from the rich tapestry of assessments completed by students during their K-12 education to inform their curricula and methods in ways that maximize each student’s potential, not to choose which students get to walk through the door.

Josh DeSantis, D.Ed., is an associate professor of education at York College of Pennsylvania, where he also serves as the director of graduate programs in the School of Behavioral Sciences and Education. He can be reached at jdesant1@ycp.edu.

Tags Education Education in the United States Education reform Educational psychology Joe Biden No Child Left Behind Act SAT Standardized test Standards-based education Test

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