Students attend an SAT-prep class at Alliant University in Irvine in 2004.… (Los Angeles Times )
High school students have long wanted the option of taking the SAT in the summer. That's when many of the tutoring programs for the high-stakes college test are given, so the information would be fresh in the students' minds. The timing also would allow them to study for the test when they have more leisure, rather than during the academic year.
Now, finally, this August, the College Board will offer a summer administration of the test — but only at a $4,500 summer program being held on the campus of Amherst College in Massachusetts, giving some 50 students who are already heavily advantaged an additional leg up. This was a terrible decision by the College Board, owner of the SAT.
It's worth remembering that when the SAT (which stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test at the time; now it's simply an acronym) was first used as a factor in admissions by Harvard University during the 1930s, the idea was to democratize the college application process. The tests were supposed to reveal innate talents of high school seniors who hadn't had the opportunity to attend elite Eastern private schools. But over the decades, that became less true as educational disparities between low-income and more affluent schools widened, and as better-heeled parents shelled out serious money for SAT-prep programs.
The College Board says that this is simply a pilot program to examine the feasibility of a large-scale summer test in the future, and to work through "any potential operational challenges." But it's hard to imagine how giving the test to 50 or fewer affluent students in a cloistered setting is going to reveal the operational challenges of giving a nationwide test. And besides, why not pilot summer testing at an urban community college where disadvantaged students would have access?
Colleges will not have the option of discounting the summer SAT results for those few dozen students because the College Board will label them as June tests — which in itself gives the students an unfair advantage, as they had more time to prepare for the test, even though it will look as though all students had an equal opportunity. Colleges shouldn't stand for it.
Strange to say, the College Board has long tried to warn families away from expensive, short-term test-prep programs, saying they don't make a very big difference in students' scores. Then, for its first summer sitting for the SAT, it aligned itself with an extraordinarily expensive, short-term SAT-prep program, implicitly signaling its approval for exactly such programs. The three-week program at Amherst, called University Prep and offered by the National Society for the Gifted and Talented, is heavily focused on SAT preparation along with tours of college campuses. The real-life impact of this ill-advised decision might be tiny, but the message it sends is loud and unwelcome.