Test-Maker Greed Spurs “New” SAT

University Testing

Beginning with its Saturday, March 12, 2005 administration, students are facing a highly touted “new” SAT. The revised exam was rushed into use by its owner, the College Board, to preserve market share in the face of a threat that its biggest customer would stop requiring the exam. The changes are largely cosmetic and fail to address the test’s major flaws (see Examiner, Summer 2002 and Spring 2002).


Instead, they are designed to prevent a potentially huge decline in revenues from a drop off of test-takers in California, the state that is home to more than 13% of all SAT registrants. The Board also hoped the changes would stall the accelerating trend of colleges and universities dropping or deemphasizing tests in the admissions process.


After a “comprehensive overhaul” in 1994 (see Examiner, Winter 1993-94 and Spring 1993) the College Board had no public plans for further changes in the exam. Then University of California (UC) President Richard Atkinson used his keynote speech at the 2001 conference of the prestigious American Council on Education to reveal that the UC system planned to drop its test requirement. He charged, “America’s overemphasis on the SAT is compromising our educational system” (see Examiner, Spring 2001). The Board scrambled to respond: unlike the 1994 revision which resulted from an eight-year research project and a task force review headed by college presidents, this “new” SAT was unveiled barely a year after Atkinson’s speech. The initial vagueness of details about its content, timing and scoring demonstrated that the revamping was driven by marketing concerns not sound, scholarly analysis.


“Painting Lipstick on a Pig”
Despite a few positive initiatives–such as the elimination of the highly coachable Analogy and Quantitative Comparison items–the revisions largely involve renaming portions of the test and repackaging an optional section as mandatory, all at higher cost to the test-taker.


The history of what is now called the SAT I “Writing” Test is illustrative. From 1976 to 1994, the SAT was a three-part exam, Math, Verbal, and an all multiple-choice “Test of Standard Written English” (TSWE). The 1994 overhaul eliminated the TSWE because it had proven to be of little value in the admissions process. But much of that exam was repackaged as the major component of a new SAT II “Writing” Test, which was two-thirds multiple-choice items drawn from the TSWE and one-third a short essay.


The SAT II “Writing” Test was never very popular. Fewer than 100 colleges in the nation required it. As a result, fewer than one in eight SAT I registrants bothered to take it.


This year’s “new” SAT provided an opportunity to transform a financial “lemon” into rich “lemonade.” The Board simply renamed the optional SAT II “Writing” Test (neé TSWE) as the SAT I “Writing” Test and made it a mandatory part of their exam package. Instead of a couple hundred thousand students choosing to take the test annually, 2.5 million test-takers per year would be required to pay for it.


The Board tried to divert attention from their fundamentally cynical move by pitching the alleged “pedagogical value” a mandatory essay might have in encouraging high schools to focus more attention on writing skills. But the Board’s own technical manual for the SAT admits that the essay will account for less than 30% of the “Writing” score: multiple-choice, copy-editing questions derived from the once-outmoded TSWE make up more than two-thirds of the total. Twenty-five minutes writing to a prompt on the SAT is not likely to produce an improvement in high school writing quality. The purported educational contribution of the new requirement is further undermined by the fact that almost all state assessment systems already include writing samples in their tests, which are taken by all high school students not just the college bound. Despite the hullabaloo, the College Board only promises a small increase in the test’s modest predictive value from the addition of the third component.


The one thing that is certain about the “new” SAT is that the addition of the “Writing” test will jack up the price. Starting with the March 2005 administration, the basic registration fee rises $12 to $41.50, ensuring the College Board about $30 million per year in additional revenues.


Where Will the Money Go?
The College Board is nominally a non-profit organization, so its tax returns are public documents. An inspection of the most recent copy on file with the Internal Revenue Service for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2003, documents the Board’s priorities.


College Board President Gaston Caperton, a former insurance salesman who served as Governor of West Virginia, a state with among the weakest educational systems in the nation, received $478,547 in salary, $76,806 in benefits and deferred compensation, and a $110,000 expense account. Tellingly, Senior Vice President for Finance, Janet Winkler, received even more in salary: $504,072 plus $49,973 in benefits. Three more College Board VPs topped the $300,000 annual compensation level, and 19 others averaged more than $200,000 for the year.


For 2002-2003, the College Board’s revenues totaled $388 million with expenses of $357 million, a tidy “un-profit” of more than $30 million. The Board ended the year with $185 million in total assets, including $153 million in cash and securities plus ownership of its office building located across the street from Lincoln Center in New York City.


Price Gouging
Some portion of the higher testing cost is justified by the need to pay essay scorers hired by Pearson Educational Measurement (see Examiner Summer 2003). But other fee increases, such as a hike from $16 to $24 in the cost for students who wish to exercise their “Truth-in-Testing” rights by reviewing a scored copy of their test, reflect little more than profiteering.


Nor are increased SAT fees being used to compensate those who staff the front line of the testing process. The exam’s length will grow by 25%, from three hours to three hours and forty-five minutes. However, the proctors and supervisors who administer it, generally high school teachers and guidance counselors, were offered a raise in their “honoraria” of less than 10%.


Essay scorers, largely moonlighting high school and college educators, will be paid a maximum of $22 per hour. For this modest sum, they are expected to score at least 220 papers in each eight to ten hour shift. Fortunately for College Board officials, reading a new essay every two or three minutes allows little time for the graders to contemplate the contrast between their level of compensation and those of the executives who profit most from the “new” SAT.