Q: My son is a senior in high school, so we have just finished with applications and testing and expensive test prep. Now I have to start worrying about my daughter, who will be entering ninth grade next year. When the New York Times magazine devotes its cover article to the "new" SAT test, it's got to be something major! I am in a panic!
A: Everyone needs to take a deep breath about the "new and improved" SAT. The College Board is a business. It is a huge business. Yes, it is a .org and calls itself a "not-for-profit" entity. But that lack of profit comes after taking their multi-million-dollar revenues (from the PSAT, SAT, and AP exams) and subtracting their expenses. And among their expenses are tremendous salaries for those at the top of the organization. While the current head of the College Board has an annual compensation package of $750,000, his predecessor had a compensation package of $1.3 million. Many executives at the College Board have salaries over $300,000. You want to know why test fees have increased so much over the years?
All right, to be fair, the head of the ACT company gets $1.1 million. As I said, testing is big business.
My intuition says that this "new" SAT is less about educational improvement and more about the fact that the College Board has been losing customers. Over the past few years, many students have shifted to taking the ACT instead. The ACT comes from a company based in the Midwest, but the College Board has had pretty much a monopoly on the East Coast. In addition, more and more colleges have become "test optional" as they realize that standardized test scores offer no prediction of how a student will fare in higher education. So the College Board has to do something to get public attention re-focused on their big tests.
Admissions officers know that the single best predictor of college success is the high school transcript.
The transcript remains the #1 most important part of the application. I cannot emphasize this enough. It is far more important that your daughter concentrates on her academics in high school. Don't even think about the standardized tests until she is in 11th grade – really!
The SAT and the ACT will not disappear because far too much money depends upon their existence. Think about it: the test fees, the fees for reporting scores, the test-prep industry, the test-prep books and manuals . . . yes, it is a giant industry!
But the truth is (no matter how many prep courses one takes):
1. Students who do well in their mathematics courses will do well on the math portions of standardized tests.
2. Students who are habitual, voracious readers, who enjoy reading for its own sake and go far beyond what is required in class will perform well on the critical reading sections. (Simply memorizing lists of vocabulary words will not cut it.)
3. Students who practice writing several times a week (essays, journals, letters to friends) will succeed in any test of writing. (Parents who think they provide "help" by writing their child's assignments are doing just the opposite.)
Do not panic. Instead, encourage your daughter to enjoy learning and to polish her skills gradually and steadily. Then she will be prepared to meet any academic challenge that may confront her in a few years.