The New SAT and Educational Inequality

The SAT is changing, and the College Board (the people who make the SAT) is starting a promising partnership with Khan Academy to bring free test preparation for the new exam as well as the current one. We can all agree that giving everyone access to free, high quality test prep is a good thing. But this effort is noteworthy in other ways as well. For starters, the old College Board would never admit that prepping for the SAT works, or can work.


Their claim has been that SAT coaching typically raised scores by only around 30 points, which really isn’t much. But now, David Coleman, president of the College Board, describe unequal access to test prep as a real problem. 

Apparently, access to test prep is a big enough problem that the College Board is partnering with an outside organization, which is also new for them. In the past, the College Board was notoriously uninterested in working with test prep companies. When I worked in the industry, the College Board’s position was that we had nothing to offer, and they were reluctant to license released SAT questions so that the College Board could advertise themselves as the only source of real SAT questions. Even writing explanations to released questions could earn you a cease and desist letter, as I discovered when I offered free explanations to a released PSAT. Now, though, it’s a different world, at least in the case of Khan Academy. 

For those of us who have worked in the test prep industry, this change in position is something of a mixed blessing. On one hand, it’s nice to hear the College Board admit that those courses we built can actually work. On the other hand, now test prep is being blamed for making educational inequality even worse. The SAT is supposed to give people from all backgrounds the opportunity to show that they have what it takes to succeed in college. But in practice, SAT results heavily favor the financially well-off. It's long been known that SAT scores correlate well with parental income. One test prep industry joke was that you could make the SAT optional and submit the parents' income tax forms instead. 

We know that the SAT magnifies, rather than levels, the advantages of wealth. But why is there such a connection between income and SAT scores? Test prep is part of the answer. Money gives you access to expensive courses and tutors, and people who find out what the SAT (or any test) is really testing and apply savvy strategies will always have an advantage over people who don’t. But is access to test prep the only reason for this connection, or even the leading reason? I doubt it. 

As a veteran of the industry who has personally taught thousands of students, I have to say that access to test prep is a pretty minor factor. Any reasonably-motivated student can already get pretty good test prep advice for almost no cost. The SAT is a well-known test. There are no secret strategies, special word lists, or anything similar that only rich people can buy. Courses provide a helpful structure, and tutors

provide personalized advice, but students can get a good sense of what to do on the SAT while paying less than a single college application fee. 

The real problems caused by inequality start long before test prep begins. Consider all of the other advantages that money can buy you. You get better schools, a peer group that is more serious about education, supplemental programs when you need it, and you can build academic skills during your vacations instead of working for a measly paycheck. Those advantages add up. One of the sad truths that I picked up while giving away test prep is that many of the people I was trying to help were in no position to benefit from test prep. The damage was done long before we got there. So getting good SAT prep at the Khan Academy will help a little, but the real issue is the rich-poor gap that starts at birth. 

For now, SAT results will mirror the inequality in our society at large, and the new SAT will probably lead more people to prep for it. (Test changes are always good for the test prep industry.) Still, the SAT could change to blunt some of the advantages of test prep by testing skills that are very difficult to pick up in a short period of time. An SAT that focused more on vocabulary, upper-level math, and essay writing would be hard to cram for. But that’s not the way the College Board seems to be going. SAT Words are being de-emphasized in favor of words that are less obscure. Fewer math topics will be tested, which will allow test prep to focus in just the right places. The essay is becoming optional. It’s still possible that the new SAT will be a better test, but it won’t level the playing fields as much as its designers hope it will.