Another SAT Overhaul May Fail NYC Minority Students

May 2nd, 2016

The following post is a winning submission for the 2016 Jason Libou Online Writing Competition. Competitors were prompted to write a blog post on a topic of their choice relating to urban law and policy. 

By Immanuel Kim Test pic 1

The College Board implemented a new version of the Standardized Admissions Test early this year, purportedly to even the playing field for students across various socioeconomic statuses. The test now focuses more on material that a typical high school student learns in school.  In other words, it is another means of testing student progress under the Common Core, an educational standard followed and adopted by most of the country, including New York State.  The redesign may leave New York City’s minority students less prepared for college than their recent predecessors.

The schools with the highest graduation rates and college enrollments also have the fewest minority students, but the vast majority of New York City school populations do not reflect those disparities in demographics.  In fact, Hispanic students comprise almost half of the entire student population in New York City public schools. In redesigning the new SAT, however, only 17% of the students College Board employed to calibrate the test difficulty were Hispanic. Furthermore, although approximately 13% of the city’s students are English language learners, 99% of the students used to test the redesigned SAT speak English fluently.  Consequently, even the mathematics portion of the redesigned SAT uses additional word problems and charts that test language comprehension more than mathematical skills, further increasing the disparity of performance across varying socioeconomic statuses.

One major issue underlying the new SAT is policymakers’ continued overreliance on standardized assessment.  The National Governor’s Association is redirecting education funds to create and implement increasingly rigorous tests and examinations, positing that “what is tested and the rigor of those tests influence what is taught.” However, simply increasing the rigor of a fundamentally flawed educational system will do nothing to help students.

Some schools, now known as the New York Performance Standards Consortium, have been moving away from the examination-based curriculum of the Common Core, and towards more performance-based student assessments. Consortium schools are reshaping secondary education from rigidly structured, test-based learning to a more receptive, inquiry-based approach that aims to draw out students’ creativity and focuses on developing transferable skillsets.

Consortium schools have strong empirical evidence to justify this departure from the Common Core.  There are slightly more minority students enrolled in consortium schools than standard New York City public schools (“SNYCPS”) , and only about 16% of minority students entering consortium schools meet State standards for education as opposed to 31% entering SNYCPS. However, data for consortium schools shows that, compared with SNYCPS, minority students have approximately a 10% greater rate of graduation and nearly half the dropout rate in high school. Furthermore, nearly twice the percentage of English language learners and special needs students graduate from consortium schools than from SNYCPS.  Subsequent studies of four-year universities also reveal that approximately 93% of the college students from consortium schools continue their studies past the first year, while only 81% of all other students in New York State do so. This pattern demonstrates the relative effectiveness of the two different forms of education, and calls the high premium placed on standardized testing into question.

Focusing the new SAT on the standardized testing mechanisms of the Common Core may hinder consortium schools from preparing more minorities for success in college, because they do not follow the Common Core. Thus, the new SAT that was intended to level the playing field for students would serve to disadvantage minorities even further than in the past.

Proponents of the new SAT might argue that shifting the balance in favor of SNYCPS by focusing on the Common Core would be more beneficial because the raw number of minority students in SNYCPS is much greater than minority populations in consortium schools. Thus far, however, empirical data shows that the vast majority of minority students receiving a Common Core education either drop out or never go to college anyway. A Common Core-based SAT would do little to help the minority students who continue to receive a Common Core education, and reduce access to post-secondary education for minorities from consortium schools.

In the long run, an SAT tailored to the Common Core may influence the future of affirmative action.  Minority students in SNYCPS might perform better on the redesigned SAT because their high school curriculum is tailored to it, however, a redesigned SAT will not substantively change America’s college education. Because minorities from SNYCPS are often less prepared for college than those from consortium schools, affirmative action might help SNYCPS minorities enter college without actually preparing them to succeed and graduate once there. A Common Core-based SAT could increase the number of minority students from SNYCPS entering college, but is unlikely to change drop out rates unless the Common Core itself changes to better prepare these students for college.

In fact, President Obama signed new legislation – partly written by testing companies – that allows students to take the SAT instead of the annual Common Core exams. Unless the educational system changes to better prepare minority students to be successful in college, the redesigned SAT could actually decrease the number of college-educated minorities, irrespective of the type of education they received, and thereby increase the socioeconomic disparity among races.