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News / Northwest

Students take new digital SAT amid debate over equity

Some schools have dropped test, others still consider results

By Elena Perry, The Spokesman-Review
Published: March 23, 2024, 6:07am

SPOKANE— For just less than a century, college-bound students have shared the rite of passage, armed with a No. 2 pencil poised to complete the bubbles of a scantron of the SAT.

Preparation for the ritual looked a little different for Lewis and Clark High School students like junior Brooke Nelson, who took the test Wednesday. Instead of sharpening her pencils, she charged her Chromebook for a new, entirely digital version of the test.

Her experience with the test? “Fast” and “not awful,” she said.

After the test, which took just more than 2 hours, a reduction from the previous tests’ 3 hours, the only thing on Nelson’s mind was her score. Another update to the digital exam, she’ll have to wait days rather than the weeks turnaround time of the paper test. The number ranging from 400-1600 used to be a critical metric all universities used in their admissions process.

In recent years, thousands of institutions adopted “test optional” or “test free” admissions policies, allowing students to choose to include the score in their application or not requiring it at all, citing equity concerns with the SAT.

Now, a group of universities is reinstating the requirement, also citing equity.

Washington State, Eastern Washington and Central Washington universities don’t accept SAT scores in their application process.

The requirement removal is a step toward universities considering students as people with complex backstories and life experiences rather than a string of numbers and grades, said Scott Kerwien, chief of student success at Spokane Public Schools and a former high school counselor.

“I think it’s just getting to honoring the kind of story and qualitative nature of our human experience versus this quantitative number experience,” Kerwien said.

By doing so, Kerwien said universities benefit from removing what could be a barrier for some and reviewing applications holistically.

“Institutions like Eastern who are committed to equity are like, ‘No, we want students to add value to our academic conversations in classrooms and we’re not gonna get there if we hold the SAT as an admissions requirement,’ ” Kerwien said. “ ‘We’re gonna get more rich discussions by including students because we know their stories because we’re evaluating them more comprehensively than a test score.’ “

Gonzaga, Whitman, Whitworth and Western Washington universities, along with the University of Washington, accept admissions in a “test-optional” model. Prospective students can decide whether to include their scores in applications, though some are concerned an omission of this metric communicates poor performance.

“If it’s optional, it’s a little scary because it’s probably best if you put it on just because it makes you look better,” Nelson said, with plans to apply to test-optional UW. “But I think it really comes down to the score you get and the other stuff on your application.”

Kerwien understands this concern, he said, and thinks assuaging it lies in the hands of the universities themselves. Though many reassure applicants that reviewers consider the entire application on their websites, Kerwien suggested they also include statistics of cohorts accepted and who included their SAT scores.

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Keeping score

A survey of 200 test-optional universities administered last year by Kaplan, an education company that sells test preparation courses, textbooks and other study materials, found that among these same test-optional schools, two-thirds said if a student submits a competitive SAT or ACT score, it helps their application.

“If you think about two students that are very similar to each other in terms of their application, and one submits a strong score and the other doesn’t submit a score, that could really help tip the scales into their favor,” said Heather Waite, Kaplan’s director of college admissions programs.

Educators have for years questioned the equity of the SAT and standardized testing in general.

“Pretending like a Grade 8 SBA assessment for an 11th-grade SAT really speaks to who that student is and what they’re capable of in the future is totally unfair,” Kerwien said. “I think what we have kind of looked at is student growth in a year-to-year basis. When students start at point X, where do they end up by the end of the school year? Our opportunity for equity is to talk about student growth, not student proficiency.”

Students’ test scores tend to rise with their parents’ income, according to a New York Times report that looked at scores from 2011, 2013 and 2015. Those in families among the top 20 percent of earners were seven times as likely to score a 1300 or higher than those in the bottom 20 . Supplemental college and test prep courses, private schooling and other opportunities accessible to those with the funds to pay for them lead to improved scores, an example of the general academic achievement gap present between wealthy and low-income students that also contributes to the test discrepancy.

Despite some universities stripping the test requirement in a bid toward equity, some are using the same justification to bring the requirement back to applications: as is the case for Yale University, Dartmouth College, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Georgetown University.

In the same Kaplan survey, 15 percent of respondents said they were considering reverting to the score requirement.

Yale announced a “flexible testing” policy for 2025 applicants, after four years allowing hopefuls to decide whether to include scores in their applications. The new policy permits students to submit scores from one test: SAT, ACT, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate. The university cited data that indicates test results correlate to academic success on campus, especially when considered in the context of the full application that includes grades, personal statements, extracurriculars and other metrics.

The new digital SAT, Waite said, is more “student-friendly” than its analog predecessor.

In addition to the shorter run time and fewer questions on the new version, test takers can use graphing calculators on the test, with one built into the testing app. Split into two modules each of math and English, the test adapts the second module to be more or less challenging depending on a student’s performance in the first. The shorter runtime made the test “a breeze” for Nelson.

“I prefer digital tests overall, especially because we didn’t have much typing in the SAT,” Nelson said. “I feel it’s better to get through the test more efficiently and faster, it’s easier to read and there’s a timer on the test so you can time yourself.”

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