SAT demand surging abroad as College Board announces redesign

Two unrelated stories about the SAT (formally the SAT Reasoning Test and one of two major standardised exams for US college admissions) have caught our attention in recent months.

Demand for the SAT is strong and growing among international students aiming to study at an American university. But at home, the US test is being challenged by stiffening competition and persistent critiques of the value of standardised exams in college admissions.

New “exam tourism” trend

The South China Morning Post has a report on the burgeoning “exam tourism” trade in Hong Kong.

“Mainland Chinese students flooded to Chep Lap Kok’s AsiaWorld-Expo early on Saturday morning, to take the SAT US college entrance exams, The Beijing News reported on Monday.

The event, organised by Beijing-based New Oriental Education, a company providing study-abroad services, drew thousands of mainland Chinese students seeking to break away from the ultra-competitive Gaokao – China’s own college entrance exam system. Huge queues stretching several hundred metres wound round corners as concerned parents shuffled to and fro to find out the latest exam times and details for their children.”

Citing local media reports, the paper noted that 95% of those taking the SAT in Hong Kong were from the mainland, “where SAT test centres are still non-existent.” Other reports indicated dramatic growth in the numbers of mainland Chinese sitting the SAT in Hong Kong, up from 7,000 students from October 2007–June 2008 to more than 15,000 students for the same period in 2008–2009. The Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA), meanwhile, was estimating the figure would have exceeded 40,000 students by the end of 2012.

This impressive growth curve naturally reflects the underlying strength of the study abroad market in China. The US remains the destination of choice for Chinese students, and the Institute for International Education reports back-to-back years of 23% growth in the number of Chinese students in US higher education (from 127,628 in 2010 to 157,588 in 2011 and 194,029 in 2012).

The swelling ranks of SAT candidates in Hong Kong also reflect the increasing numbers of students and families who are sidestepping the gaokao, China’s national university entrance exam. The gaokao is a fiercely competitive exam in its own right, and has remained so even as China’s education system has expanded in recent years. The Chinese news agency Xinhua reports that more than nine million students took the gaokao in June 2012 and that roughly 75% of those would have scored high enough to have earned a place in a Chinese university.

But, in a reflection of the highly stratified society and education system of which it is a part, the gaokao system is a controversial exam and competition is particularly intense for spaces at leading universities. A recent blog post on Inside Higher Ed observes:

“[M]any schools in China designate the final year of high school as a cram year for the gaokao, or the college entrance examination. Mr Yang, a student in Kunming spent 13 hours a day during his senior year studying for it. The phenomenon is common in today’s China.

A student’s life leading up to the gaokao is full of suffering, including pressure from family, teachers, and him or herself… Teachers and parents are also under heavy pressure. Teachers attach importance to the ranking of and the number of their students admitted to top universities, and parents always hope their children earn a high score. The competition is excessive and moving toward the extreme.”

Not too surprising then that for many Chinese students and families, traveling to Hong Kong for the SAT exam is a welcome departure from the prospect of taking the gaokao at home.

South Korea trying to clamp down on cheating

In another expression of this same demand for US college admissions exams—and, more to the point, US college admissions—South Korea was recently the scene of the first-ever nationwide cancellation of the SATs due to concerns about widespread cheating.

“The US-based administrator of the SAT,” reports The Wall Street Journal, “scrapped the May 4 sessions in South Korea three days before the test date after it discovered questions from the tests circulating in test-prep centres in the country.”

The late-breaking cancellation was a significant disruption in admissions preparation and planning for thousands of Korean students, some of whom were expected to travel to neighbouring countries to sit the exam this summer.

Speaking in The Wall Street Journal, Mrs Shim Jai-ok, executive director of the Korean-American Educational Commission in Seoul, adds:

“About 60 registered SAT prep centres operate in Seoul alone, according to the metropolitan education office. But test leaks occur because there is demand for an advantage from students’ parents.”

As in China, the academic environment is intensely competitive in Korea. Those who win a space and a degree from the best universities have access in turn to the best career opportunities. This fierce competition is an important driver of demand for study abroad among Korean students as well, and South Korea, long a leading source of international students in the US, still ranks as the number three source of foreign students in America (after India and China).

SAT redesign

With the backdrop of these sharp indicators of demand for the SAT exams overseas, the College Board, the US-based non-profit that owns and develops the exam, recently announced its intention to redesign the test to, “develop an assessment that mirrors the work that students will do in college so that they will practice the work they need to do to complete college. An improved SAT will strongly focus on the core knowledge and skills that evidence shows are most important to prepare students for the rigours of college and career.”

The pending changes to the exam have not yet been announced, but this latest effort follows on a previous round of substantive changes in 2005. It appears, at least in part, to be a response to growing competition from another major entrance exam in the US—the ACT—as well as persistent questions as to the value of standardised testing for college admissions.

2011 saw the ACT move past the SAT for the first time ever as the preferred entrance exam among US high school students, albeit marginally: 1,666,017 US students took the ACT that year as opposed to the 1,664,479 who took the SAT.

While speculation abounds as to what this upcoming redesign will mean to the SAT, and how it will compare to the ACT exam afterward, other observers caution about how the marketplace—students and families in particular—may react to further substantive changes in the SAT.

Mr Shaan Patel is the director of SAT programmes for the test preparation service Veritas Prep and was recently quoted on the pending SAT redesign in Inside Higher Ed:

“Completely revamping the SAT in less than 10 years from its last makeover may be off-putting to the biggest stakeholders involved – the students,” he said. “Students would rather prepare for a test that has been consistent for many years, rather than prepare for a brand new game. The College Board could be shooting itself in the foot by revamping the SAT again, which would likely result in even more students choosing to take the ACT exam.”



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