Is Sal Khan the most respected individual in education today or just one of the most respected individuals in education? The founder of Khan Academy, the gold standard in academic training videos, has done more to “provide a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere” than, well, anyone, anywhere. While Sal’s been busy launching yet another free academic resource, he recently shared his thoughts on testing, test-optional admissions, and equity in an insightful interview with THE Journal. Here are some of his more salient points along with some editorial commentary:
THE Journal: Is the SAT still relevant, now that many colleges and universities have made test scores optional for admission?
SK: When I talk to admissions officers, behind closed doors, they will tell you that making tests optional did not remove the need for them to get a signal of college readiness from applicants. The reality is that savvy students continue to submit their test scores, because savvy students know that test scores are one of the strongest signals of college readiness in a world where there’s so much unstandardized information. Grades can vary, not just from school to school, they can vary from teacher to teacher. Recommendations are also highly, highly variable — and really, to some degree, based on the art of the recommender, versus the capability of the student. For college application essays, we know that students get various degrees of help, and the people helping them have various degrees of institutional knowledge of what actually makes a great essay.
So standardized tests have continued to be the clearest and most standardized — and frankly, the hardest to game — signal of the student’s readiness, and savvy families and students continue to submit them. At highly selective schools that went test-optional, the students who didn’t submit scores but still got in would have needed some truly exceptional achievement on their application — like winning national academic competitions — that are much harder to achieve than getting a high standardized test score.
MB: I couldn’t agree more. College readiness is the factor that too many commentators in the college admissions conversation conveniently ignore. But when the national six-year college completion rate is only 62.2% as of June 2021 (National Clearinghouse Completing College report), we have a clear problem with readiness.
THE Journal: Do you foresee a return to SAT requirements among higher ed institutions or do you think more institutions will make them optional for admission?
SK: I think you’re going to see the pendulum swing back to requiring SAT or ACT scores when people realize how inequitable it is by making it optional. Once again, all of the advantages stay with the affluent and the people with who know how to navigate the system. MIT just went back to testing being mandatory, and I think you’re going to see more and more schools do that. Because all the data shows that it is an important part of the picture — a clear indication of college readiness, which is about making sure that when they come in, that they’re going to thrive, in whatever environment it is.
MB: Agreed. The reading, writing, quantitative, and graphical literacy skills tested on the SAT and ACT connect directly and profoundly to success in higher education.
THE Journal: Why do you think it’s important for SAT exams to be offered in school during school hours?
SK: These standardized tests have improved a lot but they’re still not perfect in terms of how accessible they are. Especially the processes for a low-income student — which I had to go through when I was in high school: They have to apply for an exam fee waiver and then wait, and then after they get the waiver, they have to schedule and take the test. In addition, when I took the SAT, you had to take it at a school that was offering it, you had to figure out the transportation, your parents dropping you off on a Saturday morning — these were all barriers. It is important for it to be offered during school hours because if it’s happening during school hours during the week, that’s one less friction, one less barrier for that family to overcome. Even better if (administering the exam on a school day means) the state or district or school can pay for it.
MB: Agreed. When I interviewed school counselor Larry Mandernach about the benefits of school day testing, he echoed the same direct observations about improved access for disadvantaged students along with increased interest in attending college among students who were pleasantly surprised by their scores.
THE Journal: What other changes would you like to see in college admissions testing to advance equity and opportunity for high school students?
SK: I (also) would like to see more curricular connections between state standards and the things that actually make them more college-ready. The SAT has moved in this direction, when the College Board made it much more aligned with state curriculum standards, which is a big win for everyone. But there are ways we can start to introduce some of these types of exercises earlier on like in eighth, ninth, 10th grade, so that when students get to 11th or 12th grades, it’s just that much more natural to test well and show their readiness on these exams.
MB: Hard not to agree here as well. We should be interleaving essential reading, writing, and math skills through the entire arc of K-12 education. As Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute points out, the college readiness battle is won or lost in elementary school.
THE Journal: How will the no-test or test-optional trend among higher education institutions impact equity in the college admissions process?
SK: I think a lot of well-intentioned folks in education sometimes have a knee-jerk reaction in the name of equity and they sort of kill the messenger. Because the messenger is showing you a picture that proves we are in an inequitable world. And none of the messengers are perfect, they might distort the information a little bit; it’s impossible to create a perfect test, and it’s even more impossible to create perfect grading, perfect recommendation systems, perfect college admission systems — these are all imperfect. But when you when you kill the messenger, you just bury the problem.
MB: Don’t shoot the messenger! If testing tells us the ways in which the American educational system needs to be improved, let’s use that data to drive effective change.
Clearly, Sal Khan and I share the same mind on a number of important education topics. So, rather than share my final thoughts, I’ll leave that honor to Sal himself, in gratitude for everything he has actually done–in contrast to those who only wring their hands about equity in education while still perpetuating an unjust system–to deliver access and opportunity to all students:
When you look at some of the countries with the most inequitable societies, it’s often because they’ve introduced the most subjectivity in their processes, and they’ve unstandardized things, and people can bribe their way into colleges. There’s ways that people do that here in this country. Things like standardized tests are viewed as a way to finally make things less open to corruption and influence. People forget that standardized tests were introduced in the name of equity about 100 years ago, because when they didn’t exist, kids at Phillips Andover, Choate, and Deerfield (private boarding schools) had many, many advantages. And I’m afraid that if we don’t use test scores at all for college admissions decisions, we’ll go back to that world.