The SAT: A New Core Subject in Schools?

The college-admissions exam is poised to play an increasing role in the classroom, and chances are it’ll further detract from traditional instruction.

Stephane Mahe / Reuters

Last week, two major education companies unveiled a set of resources that they've pledged will help all kids—rich or poor—succeed on the SAT. After decades of denying the value of test prep, the College Board, which administers the SAT, is now promoting interactive, high-quality training materials, including drills keyed to students’ abilities and instructional videos. The materials were developed by Khan Academy, the free, online education company used by more than 15 million students globally; all the content was written or approved by the College Board itself. And they are, like Khan Academy, completely free.

The unveiling occasioned the expected cheers and doubts, but to evaluate the Khan Academy’s “Official SAT Practice” resources one must understand that they are part of a much bigger plan. It’s a plan that may help get thousands of poor students on track to success. But it will also give the College Board an even larger role in America’s high schools and the lives of students.

In recent years, the College Board has started to envision itself as a force for social equality. Much of that evolution has been spearheaded by its president, David Coleman, who took over in 2012 and argues that Khan prep will help “level the playing field” for poor and underrepresented students. While large test-prep companies, including The Princeton Review (where I’ve worked as a tutor) and Kaplan, have for years provided reduced-cost test prep to hundreds of thousands of students through school districts and community programs, the Khan resources will make quality test prep even more accessible for those who cannot afford classes or tutors.

There’s no reason to doubt the sincerity of Coleman’s commitment to helping poor students. It’s important, however, to recognize that the one party that is certain to benefit quite handsomely by these efforts is the College Board.

The company wants schools to track students’ progress from eighth to 12th grade using the “SAT Suite of Assessments,” which will be largely paid for by schools and typically administered during the school day, thus ensuring high participation rates. All of the exams will be aligned with the redesigned SAT, which is slated to make its debut next spring. More school-day testing is bound to take time away from traditional instruction, as is Khan prep if schools make it part of the standard curriculum, which appears to be the College Board’s goal.

Since standardized tests are typically designed strictly to measure skills or knowledge, most poor, low-performing students probably won’t benefit from new exams—no matter how they are designed. That’s where test prep comes in. It’s no surprise that the College Board is, according to officials, piloting a program to train teachers to use Khan prep and conducting webinars for counselors on strategies for implementing SAT practice in schools.

If you ask Coleman, having students do Khan prep in school doesn’t detract from authentic learning. He believes that doing multiple-choice math and reading questions on screen and watching Khan’s YouTube videos constitute an “organic tool” that will work within the existing curriculum to develop academic skills. Meanwhile, Cynthia Schmeiser, who oversees assessment at the College Board, believes that “the sooner a student starts [using Khan prep], the more comfortable they’ll be on test day.”

These positions fly in the face of test-prep experts, who argue that the SAT is divorced from traditional school work because it is a high-stakes, time-pressured, multiple-choice exam. Tutors typically recommend intense, compact preparation that detracts as little as possible from other educational pursuits and takes months not years. As Brendan Mernin, a founding tutor at, put it, “The SAT is supposed to show what you got out of your schoolwork. It is not supposed to be the schoolwork.”

The group that will likely most benefit from the College Board’s plans includes high-performing, low-income students—defined by the researchers Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery as kids who score in the top 10 percent on their SAT scores and come from families with family-income levels in the bottom quartile. The researchers estimate that as many as 35,000 students fit this profile each year—and the vast majority of them don’t apply to any selective colleges. Harold Levy, the former chancellor of New York City schools, describes this discrepancy as a national embarrassment. Levy now oversees the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which provides long-term financial support and guidance for students in this demographic; the challenge Levy and others face is identifying these students before it’s too late, i.e., before they take the SAT. This fall, the foundation and a slew of other organizations will use data from the PSAT—the preliminary version of the exam—to find these kids. And unlike in the past, when the College Board charged a fee for each name search, that data will now be free.

Capturing the high-achieving students who might otherwise fall through the cracks involves getting more students taking the SAT. And the most effective way to do that is through school-day (rather than the traditional weekend) testing. A host of states already use the ACT—the SAT’s competitor—as a school-day test, but the College Board is catching up. Michigan is slated to switch from the ACT to the SAT as its school-day exam, while New Hampshire and Connecticut are poised to join Michigan, Maine, Delaware, and Idaho as SAT states.

And the SAT’s alignment with Khan prep—and, perhaps most importantly, the Common Core standards—is a significant marketing tool for “The SAT School Day” program. So too are giveaways. For example, the College Board has long pursued a partnership with New York City, which is the nation’s largest district and, according to a spokeswoman, has already piloted school-day SAT testing at dozens of high schools and plans to further roll out the pilot next year. The College Board covered the cost of the pilot—proof of its desire to get into the city’s schools.

Meanwhile, taxpayers essentially foot the bill for school-day testing involving more-advantaged students. The SAT School Day is predicted to cost $2 million in Connecticut, for example, even though the program probably won’t change much in the state given that 85 percent of its students already take the exam. In Michigan, the SAT School Day could cost taxpayers an estimated $17 million over three years.

Again, the College Board could benefit the most from these initiatives. Not only will it gain additional revenue from the many students who take the test a second or third time on their own dime, it will also develop a larger pool of test-takers through the huge influx of student data—valuable information that could potentially be packaged and eventually sold to school districts and foundations. For the College Board (and the ACT), students aren’t just customers; they are the product.

Granted, the College Board has already committed to providing the free data to partner programs such as the Harold Kent Cooke Foundation. But even these partnerships can have significant influence. A few weeks ago, for example, the College Board announced a collaboration with—a nonprofit devoted to increasing participation in computer science, particularly among women and students of color. Next year, the partnership will help high schools create introductory and AP Computer Science courses, fund professional development for teachers, and identify students with strong potential. But that’s only if the schools “commit to using the PSAT 8/9 equitably.” The message is clear: If you want our help, you better get on board.