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SAT: A Cynical Marketing Ploy

Bob Schaeffer is the public education director for FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing. The group is critical of most standardized testing for students.

The SAT has well-known flaws: its race and gender biases, susceptibility to coaching, weak predictive value and widespread misuse. Unfortunately, the highly touted "new" SAT fails to address any of these inequities. Instead, the test was rushed to market for purely economic reasons.

The drive to revamp the SAT was stimulated by University of California (UC) President Richard Atkinson's 2001 keynote speech to the American Council on Education. He said that the UC system planned to drop its test requirement because of the SAT's persistent flaws.

California is home to more than 13 percent of all SAT test-takers. Their loss would have been devastating to the College Board, the SAT's sponsor. Already the SAT was optional for more than 700 colleges, and that number has been growing rapidly.

The College Board scrambled to respond. Unlike the previous revision in 1994 — which was preceded by an eight-year research project — the new SAT was unveiled barely a year after Atkinson's speech.

The most highly touted change is the introduction of a writing test. Its background 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). An overhaul in 1994 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 SAT II Writing Test, two-thirds of which consisted of multiple-choice items drawn from the TSWE; one-third involved a short essay.

That test flopped in the marketplace. Fewer than 100 colleges ever required the SAT II Writing Test, in part because it was a poor predictor of college grades, especially among African Americans and Latinos. As a result, barely one-in-eight SAT I registrants bothered to take it.

For the College Board, the need to boost market share was urgent. The concerns raised by UC President Atkinson offered a perfect excuse to act. The Board made the optional SAT II Writing Test mandatory and renamed it the SAT I Writing Test.

This slight-of-hand maneuver promises to transform a financial lemon into lemonade. Instead of 250,000 students opting to take the writing test annually, 2.5 million test takers per year are now required to pay for it. Not surprisingly, the added exam section jacks up the price for students. The basic registration fee rises by $12 to $41.50.

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The College Board says the 41 percent fee increase is needed to offset the added expense of administering and grading the test. But the extra revenue is not being used to compensate front-line staff. The teachers and guidance counselors who will administer the longer exam were offered a raise in their honoraria of less than 10 percent.

Essay scorers, largely moonlighting high school and college educators, will be paid a maximum of $22 per hour. They are expected to score at least 220 papers in each eight-to-10 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.

Because the College Board is nominally a not-for-profit organization, its tax returns are public documents. They are also illuminating. The Board ended its last reported fiscal year with $185 million in assets, including $153 million in cash and securities, plus ownership of a building located across the street from New York's Lincoln Center.

That same year, College Board President Gaston Caperton received $478,547 in salary, $76,806 in benefits and an $110,000 expense account. Four College Board VPs topped the $300,000 annual compensation level, and 19 others averaged more than $200,000 for the year.

To divert attention from its marketing motivations, the Board tried to promote the test's "pedagogical value" to focus attention on writing. But the technical manual for the 2005 SAT admits that the essay will account for less than 30 percent of the writing score: More than two-thirds will come from multiple-choice items derived from the outmoded TSWE.

The 25-minute essay is not a useful measure of student writing ability. Most colleges recognize that first-draft, often-formulaic essays do not reflect the skills needed for academic success. A survey by testing rival ACT found that less than one-in-five admissions offices will require applicants to submit scores from the writing test.

That means students forced to take the "new" SAT "Writing" Test will be engaged in an expensive, time-consuming exercise whose primary purpose is protecting the bottom line of the College Board, not improving the college admissions process.