My Turn: Can we make SATs and college admissions more transparent?

by Frank Edleblut, NH Commission of Education | 

College Board recently changed the SAT to include a context score, commonly referred to as an adversity score, to better reflect the effect of socio-economic disadvantages in the assessment outcomes.

This adversity score will take into account 15 socio-economic factors in an attempt to scale results for students coming out of adverse environments that bring down test results for those students. Admitting colleges, but neither parents nor students, will receive the context score. Rather, these adversity scores are intended to help colleges get a better picture of overall student performance and shine “a light on students who have demonstrated resourcefulness to overcome challenges and achieve more with less,” according to College Board.

This new context score isn’t the only change facing Granite State students looking to higher education. The University of New Hampshire recently made a college admissions assessment (e.g., SAT or ACT) optional, in line with the rest of the USNH institutions – Plymouth State, Keene State and Granite State universities. This change follows a number of other universities that have made the national assessments optional. The UNH Faculty Senate stated its primary reason for making the change was to increase the quantity and diversity of the applicant pool, including reducing “real or perceived barriers for applying to UNH for populations that typically do less well on standardized testing.”

It is unclear how the new SAT scores would affect a student’s chances of getting into college. These scores are based on where a student lives and the school they attend, not on the individual. Should students in some towns even take the SAT? These changes add ambiguity and anxiety to an already complicated college admissions process.

The New Hampshire Department of Education and the University System are working together to try to give parents and students a better understanding of the admissions process so that they can make better decisions about taking assessments such as the SAT. We’ve put together a working group to take a look at these changes, and provide clearer guidance on how assessment tests affect college admissions. Families deserve a clear understanding of what the expectations are for continuing on a post-secondary education pathway.

No one disputes that performance disparities in the education system are real. In New Hampshire, we know that our economically disadvantaged students perform well below average on statewide assessments. Minority and special education students perform even lower. But will contextualizing (or eliminating) assessments scores for these students be the right answer, or would it fail to address the real problems of our outdated education system?

The goal should not be to merely close the performance disparity on assessment tests with nontransparent scoring or dropped scores, but to actually close the education gap. Changing the way we look at assessment tests like the SAT doesn’t mean that disadvantaged students are any better prepared for higher education. Higher SAT scores are not the ultimate goal. We should strive for mastery of the academic material so that students can use it as they work toward brighter futures.

Education can seem more like a big business than a student-centered endeavor. College Board itself had revenues over expenses of $140 million in 2017, with more than $1.1 billion in net assets and a CEO making close to $1.6 million. Not bad for a nonprofit. Surely, we can do more to prepare all students for these assessments, rather than just tweaking their scores based on their ZIP codes.

Outside of some small pockets of innovation, the way we educate students has not changed substantively in more than 150 years. This is despite great progress in understanding how students learn.

We need our education system to move from the factory model of a bygone era and into the information age. Children are inherently curious learners. The very least we can do is avoid stifling that curiosity. The way to really make a difference for students coming out of economically disadvantaged environments is to craft an education system that will nurture and cultivate that natural curiosity, bringing all students to bright futures.

Change is hard. Our children are worth it.

(Frank Edelblut is commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Education.)