May 26, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Many Colleges Are Ignoring the SAT. Does Prep Still Matter?


Millions of students will take the new Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) on March 5. For the past year or so, educators have been scrambling to get their hands on updated materials and test prep tools to help their students ace the newly designed exam. Yet, at the same time, some colleges have been stepping back from the tests, stating SATs won’t play a role in how they select their upcoming freshman class.

Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, Bennington College in VT, and George Washington University, in the nation’s capital, are among those that have said that SAT scores aren’t mandatory for undergraduate applicants. A full list of test-optional colleges and those de-emphasizing SATs and the American College Testing (ACT) assessment can be found on the site of the educational group FairTest. There are hundreds.

But that means little to school librarians such as Carolyn Jo Starkey. Even though the new SATs are meant to be less tricky than in the past—offering words more commonly used in speech, for example, than vocabulary students “may not have heard before and are likely not to hear again“—helping her kids ace them is still going to be high on her list, as grant organizations, helpful in helping students pay that pesky tuition bill, want strong test scores.

“These days you need perfect scores to attain the really big scholarships,” says Starkey, the school librarian at Shades Valley High School in Birmingham, AL. “You feel you just have to give them everything.”

Starkey finds tools to help them. She mined a $200 DonorsChoose grant to buy new test prep books to supplement outdated ones in the school library. She broke up flashcard packs into multiple sets so that more students could take them home to study. She also added links to the school’s college and career prep website directing students to free online study materials, including the ACT Question of the Day and Kaplan’s ACT Quiz Challenge. Sending them to these kinds of controlled spaces online is often helpful to students searching for test prep sites in the digital forest.

“There can be a little snake oil aspect to some sites,” says Wendy Stephens, school librarian at Cullman (AL) High School, a 9–12 campus. “Sometimes [students] can’t differentiate valid test prep sites from advertising sites.”

The antitesting movement is tied closely to the “Opt-Out” movement gathering steam among K–12 parents across the country. Their beef? That school time is being hijacked to push test-taking skills—rather than educational skills—on their children. Few states and districts use state assessment tests for more than just matriculation decisions, although some, like New York City, plug these annual scores into its competitive elementary, middle, and high school admittance process.

The move by the College Board, which oversees the SATs, to revamp the test may be a reaction to some of these requests: taking out archaic words, making the essay section optional, and, as the College Board itself says is key, making the test more aligned “with what is currently taught in high school curricula.” The idea is that students should already know what they need before they sit for the test: no costly extra prep, giving wealthier applicants an edge, is needed. In another move to level the testing playing field, New York City waived the SAT fee for public high school juniors in 2015. Also, this year the state of Connecticut is having all juniors take the SATs as a replacement for the state tests.

In reality, all of these factors may do little to make students feel more relaxed on March 5. While a growing number of schools may say test scores are optional, the majority of the more than 4,700 degree-granting institutions in the United States still look at the SAT or the ACT.

And test scores are usually important for students applying for scholarships. Financial aid is a necessity for many of the college-bound, with two-thirds of graduates carrying loans of more than $23,000, according to the White House.

Stephens will sometimes share her own score with students to try to put a human element back into the situation. She also uses a little stealth prep: hanging posters in the school library that feature 100 words “to know by the 9th or 10th grade,” she says. Students often pause to check out the posters before class.

Say a student wants to attend Temple University in Philadelphia—and only Temple, which doesn’t require the SAT. Should that student still take the SAT, which other schools weigh in their scholarship grants?

If that student wants to create options, the answer is a resounding yes. The University of Alabama, for example, awards out-of-state first-time freshman with a 3.5 GPA and higher $14,000 over four years if they earn a 27 ACT or a 1210–1240 SAT score on their critical reading and math sections. The Indiana University Bloomington has a Kelley Scholars Program for 10 freshmen who major in business and are Indiana residents. They also need good test scores—a minimum 32 on the ACT and 1350 on critical reading and math on the SAT.

So is it time to hang up the SAT? Definitely not, many believe. Starkey talks excitedly about the $17.5 million in college scholarships that students at both Shades Valley High School and the Jefferson County International Baccalaureate, which share a campus, earned for fall 2015. Helping her students get whatever help they need to pursue those scholarships, including test prep support, is just part of her mission.

“[School] librarians have always provided resources,” she says. “But at this juncture, it’s important that we do everything we can to help them succeed.”


Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at