Q&A with Sal Khan
Sal Khan: Test-Optional College Admissions Adds Ambiguity and is Bad for Students
Founder of Khan Academy Discusses Equity in Education and Removing Barriers to the SAT Exam
- By Kristal Kuykendall
Sal Khan has opinions on education.
“Democratizing education” is the cause he’s rallied around since founding Khan Academy in 2008. Then working as a hedge fund analyst, Khan tutored his cousin in math and posted the videos he made to YouTube — and so many people watched them that he decided to meet the apparent widespread need for free online instructional content.
The nonprofit that grew out of his tutoring videos is Khan Academy, on a mission to “provide learners of all ages with unlimited access to free educational content that students can master at their own pace.” Its courses range from preschool basics to early college education, including math, grammar, biology, chemistry, physics, economics, finance, computer science, history, and more.
Since 2015, Khan Academy has been home to the official SAT practice exam and free personalized SAT test prep, in partnership with the College Board.
With the final SAT School Day of the 2021-2022 school year taking place today at high schools across the country, THE Journal asked Khan whether SAT exams will remain relevant now that some colleges and universities have made them optional, whether testing makes college admissions more or less equitable, and what additional changes he predicts — and hopes to see — that will make college education even more accessible for young Americans.
THE Journal: Is the SAT still relevant, now that many colleges and universities have made test scores optional for admission?
Sal Khan: 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.
During the pandemic, it made sense to have some flexibility, because it was hard for people to take these tests. But when you go test-optional, it actually significantly disadvantages the underserved communities. My family lived below the poverty line, and when I was a kid, if I knew the test was optional, that I could save $60 and not take this test, I probably would have skipped it. And then I would not have been able to compete with kids who who were savvy enough to take the test and do the work.
When you take standardized tests out of the college admissions decisions, what's left are artifacts — essays, recommendations, good grades from good schools — that affluent and educated families can gain much, much better. So for those reasons, I think the SAT is still very relevant.
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?
Sal Khan: 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. So at a school like MIT, they're not doing anyone a favor if they admit someone who's not ready for that environment, because they might go and they might fail at MIT, when they could have gone to another very good engineering school and done just fine. The SAT is a key part of matching would-be students to opportunities that are more suited for them.
THE Journal: What important changes have been made to the SAT in recent years?
Sal Khan: In the last seven years, there have been significant changes. One was the removal of the SAT Words section, where I believe better scores correlated with wealth and family education. Now the only SAT words that are on the exam are words that you actually would use in college. So I think that's an improvement. Also, a lot of the trickiness of the SAT math section is not there anymore. Now, the exam really goes just into the basics of Algebra 2. If you have a solid foundation in Algebra 1 and Algebra 2 and geometry, every question in the math section is very, very doable. Another change is the scoring system doesn’t penalize wrong answers anymore. And recently they've announced the digital SAT coming in the next couple of years, which will make the test more accessible for more people, and they're shortening the tests and so forth, which also will make it more accessible.
THE Journal: Why do you think it's important for SAT exams to be offered in school during school hours?
Sal Khan: 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.
Those two steps remove the main barriers and make the SAT more equitable, generally. And we know that the public school system has the resources to administer standardized tests — they administer the annual state assessments that frankly don't matter for students’ college admission. That’s why we are seeing more and more states adopting the SAT or tests like it as their high school summative test. It gets multiple birds with one stone: It gives educators a signal as to which students are on track to graduate from high school really ready for college and careers, and it gets the out of the way for those students so they're going to be able to show they’re ready for college.
THE Journal: What other changes would you like to see in college admissions testing to advance equity and opportunity for high school students?
Sal Khan: The free SAT prep that we partnered with the College Board to offer, I want to make that better and better. We are doing a small-scale pilot in my other nonprofit called Schoolhouse.world with the mission of connecting the world through learning. It's a free tutoring platform, and we've started doing pilots with the College Board to see if we can offer free tutoring for college-minded students, and those are likely to scale over the coming months. 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.
THE Journal: How will the no-test or test-optional trend among higher education institutions impact equity in the college admissions process?
Sal Khan: 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.
And that problem of inequity in education and in college admissions is at risk of becoming worse. I've talked to folks in the University of California system, where they didn't even make testing optional, they went no-test. So they've just made the admissions process more ambiguous, less transparent. They've now advantaged all the people who know how to game the remaining aspects of the college admissions, namely grades — research shows there's more grade inflation at affluent schools. We know for a fact that at affluent schools, kids have access to more rigorous coursework that can impress these admissions officers. So they’re taking away the thing that maybe affluent kids had a slight advantage in but leaving behind the things affluent kids had a major advantage in. That change is making the inequities in college admissions worse.
It's always important for people to ask, OK, if we remove this, are we making the world better or making the world worse? And unfortunately, I think removing test scores from admissions is moving us in a backwards direction. Because you have to ask, is the world today better? Is it? Are we really seeing somehow a more equitable world because there's a less standardized way of proving how college ready you are?
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.