Who Benefits From the New Summer SAT?

The revised date could help teenagers better prepare for the exam—but it could also exacerbate socioeconomic inequalities.

A college test-preparation class in Maryland in January 2016 (Alex Brandon / AP)

Last week, the College Board, which administers the SAT, quietly released the exam’s schedule for the next three years. It contained big news: For the first time since the mid ‘70s, students will have the option to take the test in the summer.

Anytime an institution changes its procedures, it’s important to ask who benefits. A summertime SAT, which goes into effect in 2017, will certainly help the College Board, teenagers prepping over the summer, and the test-prep companies. But will it provide a similar advantage to low-income students, or could the summertime SAT end up widening the gap between rich and poor?

Currently the College Board offers the exam several times a year, all between October and June. According to Katherine Levin, a spokeswoman for the College Board, the decision to add a late-August test date and eliminate the January one was based on feedback from students, K-12 and higher-education professionals, and test-center supervisors. A summertime SAT will, she said, “provide students with earlier opportunities to take the SAT before submitting college applications, and more time to focus on coursework, school activities, and college applications in the fall of their senior year.”

While this will be the first time in decades that the College Board is offering a summer test, it isn’t the first time the company has explored the possibility of one. In 2012, under its last president, the nonprofit paired with the Princeton Review to pilot a program that would’ve allowed the attendees of a $4,500 summer camp for gifted children to take an official SAT in early August. When word got out that only a very small and wealthy segment of the populace would have the opportunity to participate, the pilot was canceled. Now that anyone would (in theory) have the option to take the SAT in August, the benefits of a summer test will be much more widespread. (I work for the Princeton Review, but I do not represent it here.)

Adam Ingersoll, a co-founder of the test-prep company Compass Education Group, suggested that it’s not a coincidence that an August SAT date “jumps the line ahead of the popular September ACT date.” Students are likely to find attractive the prospect of getting their entrance exams out of the way before their schoolwork becomes overwhelming or, in locations such as Massachusetts, New York, and Chicago, before it even begins. “This is a shrewd marketing move by College Board,” Ingersoll said.

In addition, a summertime SAT should help prevent the kinds of difficulties that have led to recent delays in score reporting, including the SAT administered last June. The exam contained a typo that forced the College Board to cut two sections out of consideration and caused complications for students striving to meet early-application deadlines. The blizzard last month, meanwhile, caused further cancellations, making it even less likely that schools will consider seniors’ last-ditch scores when they arrive in March. An additional test date before applications are due will lessen the burden of such delays. Students will now have two shots at the SAT in their senior year before early-application deadlines, and College Board will no longer have to deal with the annual headaches caused by the January exam.

Still, an August exam will face challenges of its own, including the summer heat; many high schools lack air conditioning. Moreover, the SAT is administered at schools by guidance counselors and teachers, and in the some parts of the country, such as the Northeast, schools won’t be in session yet. When I recently raised the prospect of an August test with some guidance counselors at an eastern Massachusetts public high school, they all objected to coming in during their summer break. Ingersoll for his part has “serious concerns about [the] College Board’s ability to orchestrate enough test centers to handle the demand. Their ambitions have outstripped their abilities of late.”

All in all, however, these problems are unlikely to outweigh the benefit of an August exam. Students can get ready for the test at little or no cost to their regular schoolwork. (Despite the insistence of the College Board that the new SAT is aligned to the work students do in school, test prep is not real schoolwork.) The August date also resolves a common problem for those who prep during the summer—students who often have to wait a month or longer once their prep class ends before taking the test. Because the SAT is very different from the work students do in school, the knowledge and skills learned for the SAT can fade relatively quickly if not put into practice. An athlete wouldn’t stop practicing a month before the championship, but that’s precisely what a lot of students do when it comes to the SAT. Not anymore, once the August exam goes live.

Paul Kanarek, the CEO of Collegewise, the nation’s largest private college-counseling organization, described the news of the August test date as “one of those rarest of occasions—almost a unicorn moment—where College Board's relentless pursuit of its own economic interests also helps students.” Getting rid of the January exam, he argued, makes sense because it’s lightly attended, and those who take it are often juniors from elite private high schools. Kanarek said he “wouldn't be at all surprised if August didn't become one of the top two most popular testing dates within two to three years,” a sentiment echoed by Ingersoll.

Harold Levy, the executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which awards scholarships to high-achieving, low-income students, cited another significant benefit of an August SAT: “The earlier date will allow students to have a better handle on their scores going into early decision, early action,” which will help them devise a sounder application strategy. “If more low-income students can take advantage of [early admission],” he added, “it will helpful them immensely to match to the appropriate schools.”

The “if” in Levy’s remark is all-important because it highlights the importance of assessing how the new test date will affect lower-income students. On an even playing field, low-income students should enjoy the same benefits of an earlier test date as their more-affluent peers would, but a recent Jack Kent Cooke Foundation report demonstrated the field is far from level. As Levy argued in an op-ed, “Children of poverty can’t apply early, because they can’t commit to a particular school until they know how much their financial aid package will be.”

One of the major impediments preventing low-income students from applying early to schools is the fee-waiver system, whose red tape and paperwork already make it difficult for them to take the October test, according to Carla Shere, the college-guidance director at Manhattan’s Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering in Manhattan. In some schools, the waiver system’s timeline fosters a culture that encourages students to take the SAT for the first time in November of their senior year. (Prep-school students, on the other hand, are often advised to take the SAT for the first time in the spring or even winter of their junior year.) According to Levin, the College Board is aware of this challenge and working on a remedy that will make fee-waiver distribution available for the August test date.

Ironically, one of the College Board’s answers to the access problem could actually put low-income students at an even greater disadvantage. SAT school-day testing, an option in which states or school districts pay for all students to take the exam in the spring of junior year, is one way around the fee-waiver crush since everyone takes it for free. School-day testers do not, however, enjoy the advantage of prepping for the exam without the competing demands of homework and extracurriculars. And free testing could create a scenario in which poor and middle-class kids take the test only once during the school year while their wealthier peers get to prep for an additional summertime exam.

Because low-income and first-generation students often lack the guidance of parents who have been through the application process themselves, community organizations that support and advise students as they navigate the SAT are incredibly important to expanding access to higher education.

Sarah Place, who oversees the college-access initiatives of Bottom Line, a nonprofit dedicated to helping low-income and first generation students get into and graduate from college, thinks the summer date could benefit the organization’s students because it was granted a number of fee waivers to distribute itself. Clayton Harding, of the Armory College Prep program, an after-school college-access program for high-school track athletes located in Manhattan, is also optimistic about the new date: “By offering the exam in the summer, less-affluent students will now have a better chance to prepare without the distractions of school,” he said

But what about students who are not tapped into organizations like Bottom Line or Armory College Prep? And what about the students who can’t afford to participate in summer-enrichment programs, let alone test prep? Shere cited research on the impact of “summer slump,” suggesting that sitting for a test in August, when students haven’t been academically challenged for weeks or even months, could backfire.

While all students can take the August test when it debuts in 2017, relatively few students will be able to shell out the $1,000 or more needed to prepare for the SAT during the summer. And while certain test-prep tools, like Khan Academy, are free to use, they require that students are highly motivated and highly disciplined—the kinds of students who don’t need the nudge a course or a tutor can provide. As Dan Rubin, who directs the college-counseling program at Newton South High School in Massachusetts, pointed out, the summer test date “potentially creates some equity issues between those who have the resources to get it together before summer vacation rolls around and those who might be scrambling.”