Wednesday, January 11, 2023

The Common Bond That Ties

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

A representative from College Board was talking about some boilerplate changes to the SAT—changes in registration procedures, notifications of new products—but she held almost all her enthusiasm for what she clearly saw as a big deal.

“As you know, we’ll be recentering the SAT this year” she gushed, even though she was battling a head cold. “We’re very excited about all the prospects this change will have for students, counselors, and colleges”, and she discussed those in great detail.

We took a break, and I felt compelled to share the excitement she had generated in me. “This is really quite something,” I started once I got to the front of the room, “College Board is really taking a giant step in creating an SAT that will be free of the cultural, gender and racial biases of past tests.”

It had been a while since someone looked at me like I was stupid, but here we were. She said something like “We’re recentering the test, not redesigning it. If we did that, there would be no way colleges could compare scores on the new test with scores from the old test. We’re happy to make sure the distribution of scores is accurate, but we aren’t going to change the test.”

If I was a classroom teacher, and my principal came in to tell me my teaching practices showed racial, cultural, and gender bias, the last thing I would do is say, in essence “I know, and I’m going to keep doing that.” But even in the face of overwhelming evidence, College Board was not only admitting these practices existed; they seemed almost proud that they were going to continue. I left the update, hoping a future meeting would bring the news of the changes I thought College Board needed to complete.

That was in 1984, and I’m still waiting. This isn’t to say College Board has no regard for students of color, first gen students, and females. They offer many services and programs designed to bring students from these groups into the fold, with many of these products amounting to some kind of inside-baseball look at the SAT. That’s nice, I guess, but it reminds me of winter driving in Michigan. You’ll avoid catastrophe if you know where the potholes are, but wouldn’t it be better just to fix the street?

Test optional advocates cite this as one of the biggest reasons to give up on standardized tests, and have some early evidence to suggest some test optional schools have seen an increase in student diversity since making the change. This is welcome news, to be sure, but as our colleague Jon Boeckenstedt has pointed out on more than one occasion, nearly every aspect of holistic admission has a built-in bias that favors the well-to-do. It’s more than fair to think an essay-free, recommendation-free admissions process might also advance the goal of increased diversity, but even a grades-only admission policy would have some significant economic biases.

Beyond that, Jon has occasionally raised a question our profession is hesitant to answer. If we found an admissions process that was more streamlined and open to all, how eagerly would we embrace it, knowing that it would spell the end of a need for writing coaches, test prep coaches, and many aspects of the work of college counselors? At a time when many in our profession are eager to hurl stones at College Board, it gives one pause to consider how much our self-interest may, like College Board, lead us to be comfortable with half solutions.


  1. You've done it again, Patrick! Bravo!

  2. Thanks for asking that uncomfortable question, Patrick (and Jon). Hearing about the AI (artificial intelligence) app ChatGPT producing writing that sounds like a human wrote it, it seems that requiring essays is going to be pointless pretty soon. I hate to think about giving up on writing, but I don't see how it can be avoided. More and more, I think some sort of lottery is the way to go. It's as fair as anything else. Admission reps could scan applications for the minimum level of coursework, grades, honors, awards, and extracurriculars (and test scores, I suppose); read the secondary school report and counselor or teacher letter; then put all the kids who meet those criteria in a lottery. Spend time visiting more high schools rather than reading apps.