Credit: By qperello, Alberto G via Wikimedia Commons

Harvard Historian Nacy Koehn on the SAT's Volte Face

March 11, 2014

Boston is known as the cradle of democracy but across the Charles River Harvard also deserves some credit for creating its own strain of equal opportunity by way of the SAT.

In the early 1930's Harvard President James Bryant Conant decided to recruit students who were not the product of East Coast boarding schools. Back then it was the Choates, Penningtons, and Wesotver schools  of the world  that were supplying Harvard with the bulk of its student body. In order to diversify the campus  Harvard designed a scholarship program and used the SAT to evaluate its  applicants.  As New York Times Magazine's Todd Balf characterizes it the SAT "was promoted as a tool to create a classless, Jeffersonian-style meritocracy."

By the 1940's, however, the purpose of the SAT changed and it's been undergoing a metamorphosis (or in the words of the newest SAT: change) ever since.

Today the SAT is used to test all college applicants and it has long departed from its original intent: to create a classless meritocracy. With a multi-billion dollar industry that gives wealthier kids access to private tutors and  elite preparatory classes, low-income kids are at a disadvantage, particularly if they go to underperforming schools.

This latest redo of the SAT is designed to level the playing field.  Among the SAT's many changes, the essay will be optional, arcane vocabulary words will be done away with, and low-income students will be given fee waivers so they can apply to four colleges at no charge. The College Board is also collaborating with Khan Academy to offer free online practice problems.

For several generations of college-bound students the SAT has  been a source of torment or triumph. For some kids the SAT has been the ticket to a college scholarship and for others it's locked kids out of school and funding.

Today Harvard historian Nancy Koehn joins Jim and Margery on BPR for her take on the SAT's overhaul.

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