SAT Controversies

In the last several months, the SAT was rocked by two separate controversies that have students, parents, college counselors, and teachers all doubting the value and fairness of the SAT. Shortly after the administration of the August 25th, 2018, test date, rumors began circulating that some of the questions that appeared on the test had previously appeared on an SAT administered in China in the spring.  It was later claimed by parents who filed a class-action lawsuit in Florida that the entire test was previously administered as the October 2017 SAT in Asia. This followed the June 2nd, 2018, testing which leads to a firestorm of criticism of the College Board when it was revealed in early July that the Math section may have been flawed. According to the College Board’s scaling of the test, the Math section was too easy, and four questions were removed from the scoring.  The Math scores were scaled down so severely, in fact, that numerous students noticed that despite answering more questions correctly than on previous attempts at the SAT, they saw their scores on the Math stay the same or go down.

At first glance, the August testing controversy can seem overblown.  For decades, the College Board has re-used questions over several testings, until questions are shared with the public as part of the Question & Answer Service when the College Board releases the October, March, and May tests to students who have paid an additional fee.  The problem is that since 2013, test questions and even test sections have leaked in Asia, especially China, on a regular basis, resulting in copies of the SAT floating around the internet in the days, weeks, or months before the same questions are used on an SAT in the United States.  The College Board’s spokespersons have claimed that such leaks have only ever affected a handful of students at a time and that students who cheat by accessing leaked materials will have and have had their scores canceled.  Those assurances have failed to calm the anger of students, parents, and educators alike in light of reports that the leaks in Asia are due to faulty security measures, as first reported by Reuters in 2016.

Perhaps the August 2018 controversy would not have taken on such immense proportions if the exact previous testing date, June 2018, wasn’t also wracked with controversy.  According to the College Board, their team realized shortly before the administration of the test that the Math section was much easier than most of the iterations of the test, so they scaled the math section much more steeply than normal.  Additionally, after the testing, the College Board removed four questions that students had encountered from the scoring, most likely because the questions were so easy that almost every student who took the June SAT got those questions correct. While it is true that the College Board has removed questions from scoring consideration on previous SATs and it is true that the scaling of the SAT does fluctuate from testing to testing, the combination of these two factors along with the fact that the College Board didn’t announce any of this until after the scores were released in July to the shock and confusion of students and parents only exacerbated the controversy.

The College Board has weathered decades of cheating scandals and minor mistakes, but the deluge of bad press and worse decisions over the last five years has begun to have an effect on public trust in the College Board.  In addition to the aforementioned leaks of test questions, test sections, and entire tests in Asia since 2013, the June 2015 test date, one of the last iterations of the “old” 2005-2016 version of the test, was marred by printing errors, most especially in the time limit printed on the front page of each section, leading to the College Board dropping one Math and one Critical Reading section each from the scoring on that test.

Leaving aside the tepid responses to these controversies that are normal for the College Board, in which students and parents are usually only offered an indifferent apology via press release and the option to take the test again on a subsequent test date, usually the October date of the following school year, for no additional cost, the growing sentiment among students, parents, and educators is that the College Board doesn’t care.  Add to this the increasing movement of college and universities to a more test-optional stance in their admissions processes.  One conclusion that can be drawn is that the College Board, through indifference or incompetence, is hastening the demise of the admission process that has focused on standardized test scores that colleges and universities have utilized since the 1920s.  Some have theorized that a majority of colleges and universities will not only no longer require the SAT or similar tests but will no longer accept these tests for admissions within the next two decades, or perhaps even sooner.

Without a simple, universal metric that all colleges and universities have agreed to accept, the college admissions process will more and more depend on intangible criteria such as personal narrative.  Expert advice from knowledgeable professionals will, therefore, be more and more important, even in a world where the rest of the process is becoming more digital.