Hail California - King of the SAT

Jed Applerouth, PhD
January 20, 2014
min read
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Though the College Board wields great authority from its seat of power in the East, it takes many of its cues from the ultimate power broker of the West: California. One cannot ignore the power California commands on the national scene in realms as diverse as politics, economics, the environment, and education. With a population of 38 million and an economy equal to that of Russia, it is no surprise that California frequently gets its way.

In the domain of admissions testing, fourteen percent of US students taking the SAT—roughly one in seven—reside in California. California’s higher education system, the largest in the world, is a force to be reckoned with: the flagship University of California system boasts an enrollment of 234,000 students. The California State University system claims an impressive 437,000 students. And the California Community College system serves a whopping 2.4 million students. Any move on the part of California, with its 3 million students, will inevitably send ripples across the American educational landscape.

The last time California flexed its muscles, it elicited tremendous changes to the SAT. The last overhaul of the SAT, in March 2005, was a direct result of discontentment in the UC system. A 2001 report from the UC Office of the President indicated that the SAT II achievement tests were a better predictor of UC freshman grades than standard SAT I (reasoning) tests. In light of these findings, UC President Richard Atkinson proposed that the university system drop the SAT as a requirement for admissions, foregoing an assessment that evaluated students on “undefined measures of aptitude or intelligence” in favor of new assessments more closely linked to the high school curriculum.

This UC proposal was effectively the death knell for tests of “aptitude” and the vindication of tests of “achievement” in our college assessments. The College Board simply could not risk losing California and its wealth of students. To appease the UC system, the College Board reformatted the SAT, shedding aptitude-heavy question types such as analogies and abstract quantitative comparisons, and integrating the most popular SAT II achievement test, Writing, directly into the SAT I.

During my recent trip to the West Coast, I learned that the masters of California’s higher education empire may have once again bent the College Board to their will. The College Board was on a path to counter the surging ACT by unveiling its new SAT in March of 2015; however, in a surprising December 2013 statement, College Board President David Coleman announced a one-year delay of the new test’s proposed rollout date. This was a shocking move, given that the proposed changes to the test, dropping the emphasis on esoteric vocabulary, aligning math more closely to the Common Core State Standards, and making students adhere to facts in their essay— were largely welcomed by educators. When Coleman announced “we heard clearly from our members….that [they] need more time,” he may have been obliquely referring to educators from California.

It seems that in December, at the time of Coleman’s surprise announcement, the College Board was sweating a very aggressive deadline established by administrators at the University of California. UC leaders had apparently demanded to see all the internal research on the upcoming “new” SAT in the early first quarter of 2014. They wanted to see the test forms, validity research, and evidence that this new test would be an improvement over the old. They wanted adequate time to fully investigate the new test before requiring it of their students. The College Board was working feverishly to meet the UC-imposed deadline, but ultimately conceded that it was simply too aggressive.

Rather than risk losing the support of the UC system, an outcome that could be catastrophic if other state systems followed suit, the College Board may have opted to take another year to compile the data that the UC system had demanded.

The College Board is wise to defer to California, but now the College Board’s burden has increased. The ACT is surging: two years ago, for the first time in history, more students took the ACT than the SAT. And last year the ACT expanded that lead from roughly 2,000 students to a staggering 100,000 students. The gap will only grow this year as reps from ACT, Inc. shop the PLAN, ACT, and its new Aspire product to districts and states across the country. Waving the banner of “achievement” testing, the ACT is securing state-wide contracts and anchoring in at schools across America. Will the College Board be able to regain this lost ground when its new test is ready for California and the rest of the country? Stay tuned as the drama unfolds.

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