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This Week: $4,500 for a Better SAT Score? The College Board's Unfair New Program

Why is the organization that administers the SAT selling access to a "special" test date -- at $4,500 a pop?
 
 
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For those with high school-aged kids and an extra $4,500 laying around, the world of college admissions recently got a little bit rosier: thanks to the College Board, the company that owns and administers the SAT, you can now buy your kid an extra shot at taking the all-important test this summer – but only if your child is deemed “gifted and talented.” And only if you cough up the dough to enroll her at a special summer program at Amherst College.

And for those who have neither the money nor the academic chops to make the cut? Well, they get shut out of this special opportunity, which will most certainly give a leg up to the already privileged students who are allowed to participate.

This special test – now being called the “Rich Kids SAT” by organization like the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest) – is scheduled to be administered on August 3 of this year, and according to a press release circulated by the College Board and the National Society for the Gifted and Talented (one of the Board’s partners on this endeavor), this new summer date “marks the first time that the country’s oldest and most widely used college entrance exam will be administered to students outside the standard academic year.” 

Perhaps that was for good reason. Since the announcement, parents, students, college admissions counselors, and education reform advocates have been vocal about their criticism of the move, and FairTest is now calling on the College Board to cancel the test altogether. 

It’s not hard to see what’s got folks so up in arms. As any person who has taken the SAT can tell you, and as most testing advisers acknowledge, when it comes to standardized test taking, practice makes as close to perfect as you’re going to get. The more you take tests like these, the better you get at taking them (isn’t that the very justification given for how much time we spend on test prep in our public schools these days?). Taking them under conditions that mirror the actual conditions under which you will eventually take the test helps, too – sitting at your dining room table is one thing; sitting under the fluorescent lights of a classroom, with many other test takers, in a strictly timed setting is another again. Not to mention that in the College Board’s initial announcement there was no indication that these scores wouldn’t count; in other words, the August 3 date would offer another official opportunity for a small sliver of well-off students to boost their scores even further.

Now, it’s not news that students with resources are able to prepare for the SAT in ways that those without resources cannot; participation in Princeton Review and Kaplan courses is ubiquitous among privileged kids, and test prep academies like these absolutely guaranteethat they will improve your score. But what is news is that the College Board, a “not-for-profit organization created to expand access to higher education” would so proudly embrace a plan that makes no bones about offering wealthy students an advantage on a test they have claimed is a “democratizing force in education.” 

Let us be clear: there is nothing democratic about what the College Board has done here. The SAT is required for admission to the majority of colleges and universities in the US, and despite a push from some corners to do away with the test (particularly because it serves as a poor predictor of college performance), these scores still matter. Yes, college admissions officers balance them against a host of other measures, but at the end of the day, SAT scores can still make or break your college application – particularly at the most elite colleges, where application rates are astronomical.

In this context, to create a special opportunity to take the test only for those who can pay in the thousands of dollars to access it, suggests an allegiance to the least democratic principles I can imagine. (Even the College Board now seems to understand that something is “off” about what they’re planning to do: in recent days they’ve begun to backpedal and now claim the August date will only be a “pilot” test -- which, as FairTest points out, is laughable for a couple of reasons.) 

But the College Board’s plan is only a symptom of the larger problem; this same lack of concern for equality in education is what’s driving far too much education policy these days – and this week’s Education newsletteroffers you a number of views on just how uncommitted we are, as a nation, to ensuring that all students get an equal shot at achieving their personal best.

I hope you’ll take the time to learn more about which states are funding public pre-K, and why it matters so much that they do – particularly for children whose parents will never be able to afford the $4,500 to buy them a shot at a perfect SAT score. Take a look, too, at the cuts being made to continuing education programs that, again, serve students who – for a set of not dissimilar reasons – would never make it onto Amherst’s campus for the tony summer program the College Board is offering. 

The folks at the College Board can talk all they want about “expanding college access” and “democratizing” forces, but on this one, they’ve shown their hand. Apparently, the fastest route to scoring well on the SAT is being born rich – which, come to think of it, has clearly been the case all along.

 

Elizabeth G. Hines is AlterNet's education editor. Follow her on Twitter: @mseghines
 
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