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Bruno: Why Should A Test "Level The Playing Field," Anyway?

10873567586_8167603a81_nWhen the College Board announced that it would be making changes to the SAT, it justified many of those changes in terms of "levelling the playing field" for historically lower-scoring populations of students. 

But why would that be a goal for a test that is explicitly aimed at assessing college readiness?

Don't misunderstand me: I think you can make a very strong case that the existing "playing field" for students is not very level.

All children acquire and accumulate advantages and disadvantages through accidents of birth, upbringing, education, and environment, and the distribution of outcomes at adulthood is by no means equitable or fair.

The SAT, however, is explicitly aimed at measuring some of those outcomes: namely, "what you know and how well you can apply that knowledge". It seems unreasonable - and, to my mind, nonsensical - to demand that the SAT also rectify those inequities.

Arguably, some of the College Board's proposed changes may promote fairness at the margin. Expanded fee waivers may increase access somewhat, and freely-available test preparation materials may do a bit of good, but the effects are unlikely to be large.

But, again, to what extent could the SAT "level the playing field" in the first place? By the end of high school some students are academically better-prepared than others. That is arguably an inequity, but it is an inequity the SAT doesn't cause so much as it measures.

Indeed, to the extent that it illuminates substantial inequities, the SAT also reveals itself to be administered far too late in the game to meaningfully affect the outcome for most students. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)


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Apparently, the idea is that the current SAT measures some abilities that are easier for wealthier students to acquire but that are not needed for success in college. I think this contention is questionable at best, although if it were true it would be OK to support the changes. The College Board's mistake is to go ahead with the changes (rather than testing the new version) without determining whether important distinctions in performance, distinctions that actually do make a difference to college success at least at the upper end, are being lost.

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