image from The New Yorker

image from The New Yorker

They’re revising the SAT yet again. I’m sure you’ve heard about it. If not, here’s a summary of the changes:

  • 1600 scale: 800pt Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, 800pt Math, and optional, separately scored essay similar to the ACT
  • No guessing penalty
  • Essay measures a student’s ability to analyze a source text
  • Elimination of words like “munificence” and “prurient” in favor of more functional vocabulary
  • Source documents originate from a wide range of academic disciplines, including science and social studies
  • Each exam will include a passage drawn from the Founding Documents of America or the Great Global Conversation they inspire
  • Breadth of mathematical concepts will be narrowed to a more linear and fundamental few, so that “Students can study these core math areas in depth and have confidence that they will be assessed” (The College Board). Categorized as 1) Problem Solving and Data Analysis, 2) Heart of Algebra, and 3) Passport to Advanced Math.
  • Calculator permitted on select portions of test
  • Available physically and digitally

This announcement upsets me and, as The Prospect’s resident provocateur, I’ve written a ranty op-ed to tell you why. Before I begin, I want to provide you with a bit of a disclaimer: I have a very good SAT score. I do not come from a low-income family. I’m part White and part Asian, (which is not considered to be a minority in the admissions universe). My SAT-hating comes from the position of all that privilege, and I ought to call attention to that.

I would also like to say that this is not a holistic hate-fest. I like that they’re making the essay about actual analysis rather than formulaic word-vomiting and “canned” stories and facts. I like that they’re getting rid of the obscure and irrelevant vocabulary words that strategy often can’t solve. I like that they’re putting equal weight on mathematical and linguistic concentrations because, for international applicants, 1/2 of a test in their non-native language is a lot more manageable than 2/3. That’s about the extent of my good graces.

So. This announcement was made in early March by David Coleman, the current president of The College Board and one of the primary architects of the Common Core. He feels that updating the SAT is necessary because it has “become disconnected from the work of our high schools” and must begin to promise students that “studying their course material in high school, not taking extracurricular test-prep courses that tend to focus on test-taking skills, is the way to do well on admission tests and succeed in a rigorous college curriculum.” Basically, the SAT is molding itself to more accurately evaluate students’ ability to absorb and apply the information that they’re actually learning in school.

Here’s the immediate problem I have with that information alone. The back of the current blue book literally says “The SAT does not test logic abilities or IQ. It tests your skills in reading, writing and mathematics – the same subjects you’re learning in high school.” …So what are we trying to achieve? The man who altered the SAT to fit suspiciously Common-Core-esque criteria is the guy who built, and must defend the Common Core. This, along with the fact that the ACT recently surpassed the SAT in terms of test-takers, raises a ton of questions about Coleman’s (and the Board’s) agenda.

The new SAT looks a lot more like the ACT, in terms of both content and style (insert relative goals here). Many students appreciate the differences between the two, as they allow them to lean towards the test that best represents their learning-style and skills. Why change the SAT only to diffuse these advantages and make it more similar to its currently existing counterpart? The situation screams “business ploy.” The same concept applies to its ties to the Common Core. Strengthening the relationship between SAT scores and implementation of the Common Core will draw the same business, support, and money that the current Test Prep industry already receives to a program that desperately needs it. However, I only mention these affiliations to bring them to light and spark conversation. I am in no place to make any proper assertions regarding The College Board’s motives in announcing these changes and would like to assume that their intentions are the best.

Photo from The Dallas Morning News

Shaping the SAT to better evaluate our ability to master information learned in school is the foundation of my issues with the change.

Components of an application that display a student’s ability to absorb and apply information learned in school: THEIR TRANSCRIPT DOCUMENTING FOUR YEARS OF THIS ABILITY, AP test scores, IB test scores, SAT II test scores, GPA, class rank, letters of recommendation.

Components of an application that display a student’s ability to spontaneously use a variety of information/skills learned in school to solve unique and challenging problems in a limited amount of time: SAT score, ACT score

Hopefully you see what I’m getting at. I’m a huge fan of holistic admissions. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who isn’t. And honestly, I feel like the US undergraduate system does an awesome job at it. In practically every other advanced country around the world, you take your exit exam, receive a score, and that score determines whether or not you’re eligible for admission to a given university -no ifs, ands, or buts.

Here, we’re given the opportunity to submit transcripts, leadership positions, volunteer work, extracurricular activities, awards, personal essays, supplements, work experience, AP/IB/SAT II scores, letters of recommendation, supplemental letters of recommendation, and literally anything else you can imagine under the “Additional Information” section. That’s a lot of information about you. It would be difficult to make it more holistic. The changes being made to the SAT are making it better at measuring something we already measure, and worse at measuring what it attempts to currently evaluate. This strips it of its identity, importance, and relevance to college applications, and fails in three main ways:

Admissions

Most SAT-haters complain about the fairness of measuring a students’ entire “scholastic aptitude” with a number, four hours, and a Saturday morning. I’ve already discussed my feelings about that: it’s one component of your application, can be taken up to three times and superscored, in addition to practice tests that can be taken an unlimited number of times. I think that’s more than fair. The intrinsic value of the score itself, however, is often combated by a study that concludes that a student’s GPA better predicts his or her college performance than his or her SAT score. That’s fine.

I just don’t understand why it’s so frequently used as evidence for the removal of the SAT from college applications. Surely a student’s GPA and SAT score is a better predictor of college success than GPA alone. Revamping the SAT to better achieve this purpose is not unnoble, but unnecessary, especially with the popularization of test-optional schools. The relationship between a student’s GPA and SAT score is critical to admissions officers.

First, the SAT remains the only constant data point in a student’s application. GPA, though reliable as a whole, fluctuates significantly based on the rigor and grading scale of different versions of the same class that can’t be expressed on paper. For this reason, a challenging, reliable SAT that measures a distinct skillset is especially necessary for larger universities. Ask UCLA, who received almost 100,000 applications this fall, to spend the same amount of time evaluating each student as a tiny liberal arts college. That’s not just unreasonable, that’s impossible. As the SAT becomes easier to master and loses its unique evaluative criteria, it becomes less reliable in critical situations. This has led to a lot of chatter about the beginning of its demise. That is really bad. We don’t like that.

Many claim that the new SAT will be easier, with its more predictable, “masterable” format and content. If indeed it becomes easier for the average student to score better, as the College Board appears to have intended, the playing field will not be made equitable. If a high score becomes the norm, top colleges will simply heighten their expectations. End of story. It’s impossible to predict the change in score distribution, if any, but one thing’s for sure; admissions are not becoming less competitive any time soon. This leads me to my next point…

Economic

THIS. IS. NOT. GOING. TO. CLOSE. THE. SOCIO-ECONOMIC. ACHIEVEMENT. GAP. Wealthy families are not going to stop being wealthy, nor are they going to stop spending their money on test prep for their kids.

If they’re attempting to close the achievement gap by merely making it easier to score higher, scores will only be evaluated more harshly. If the entire country is suddenly getting amazing SAT scores, the SAT loses its value completely and we might as well get rid of it. Which, as I already expressed, would be bad.
Enough said.

The extent to which test prep is helpful is really debatable. (Read this article for some interesting opinions that I won’t cover here.) This pretty legit looking study, conducted in 1999, states that standard commercial test prep increases a student’s score by an average of 21-34 points, a number so small that it could be considered statistical error. Then again, this company guarantees a minimum 240 point increase, or your money back. There’s obviously some huge ambiguity in this situation and I’m not afraid to say that I have no idea what to think.

My parents signed me up for this two day SAT prep course, as well as had me meet a few times with a woman who helped me diagnose my “problem areas” and hone my skills. And from my personal experience, it was all bull. The course was a total gimmick that provided really unhelpful ways to “game the test” that could only be applied for like…one question every time. The “consulting” was equally pointless because I am quite capable of independently analyzing the set of data that describes my last test, diagnosing my own problem areas, and honing my own skills. My score did not increase by any significant margin as a result of ever-demonized “test prep” (which, admittedly, is not representative of the most rigorous programs out there). What did end up working was sitting down with a beat-up blue book, some free online resources, and just putting in the work.

The College Board’s collaboration with Khan Academy to provide free SAT prep is a totally sweet and helpful idea. But suggesting that it’ll do anything to close the socio-economic achievement gap is completely ridiculous. Free SAT prep is nothing new. Khan Academy itself already has free SAT math videos, though less formal and comprehensive as the new program will be. Any student can buy a prep book for $3 at a used book store. If they don’t have $3 to spare, there are free webinars, video tutorials, written tutorials, planning services, blog posts covering all the “tips” given in fancy prep programs, free sites upon free sites upon free sites covering all of this stuff in amazing and effective detail. If a student lacks internet access, there are prep books at the library. They could borrow one from an upperclassman. I’m sure that upperclassmen and teachers would be more than happy to tutor or answer questions. All available. For free.

Which leads me to think that the relationship between race, socio-economic status, and SAT score, is not something that can be remedied by changing the SAT. It is quantitative evidence of racial discrimination, gender bias, income inequality, educational ineffectiveness, poor communication between prestigious universities and high-achieving, low-income students, and other injustices far too deep and complex to have anything to do with institutional error. Blaming The College Board for this is bad. The College Board pretending that they can fix this is bad.

Intellectual

I’ll try to keep this short and sweet.

The current SAT is hard because it requires students to utilize a dynamic set of academic skills to rapidly solve unexpected and sometimes abstract problems. The new SAT will eliminate the “mystery” that has caused so much anxiety and replace it with questions that are closely related to Common Core standards and more familiar to students. I have already talked about why I dislike this method of evaluation. I also fear that the new test is less intellectually demanding than the old one.

A few examples:

  • The guessing penalty, despite the fact that it makes us sad, was implemented to ensure that students earned the score they got because they knew the answer, not because they guessed. I like that. We are getting rid of that.
  • I’m afraid that intensely familiarizing students with test style and material beforehand will shift the evaluated skills from nonroutine comprehension to recall, which is a much more basic measure of cognitive ability and a lower standard than I would prefer US students to aspire to.

Not-so-unknown-or-fun-fact: We perform worse academically than basically every other advanced nation in the world. People like to cite Finland’s system as an educational model because apparently there’s very little homework, teachers are really well-qualified and get paid a lot, and there’s very little standardized testing. Except during their senior year of high school. In which they take a fifty hour examination called the Matura, in which one of the recent six hour essay prompts was “Why is it difficult to achieve peace in the Middle East?” But no one talks about that aspect of the distant utopia. Other developed nations have their own versions of this test; America’s has the lowest standards and it shows.

Whether the changes to the SAT make it easier can only be determined in time, but, based on the information provided, it’s certainly not getting any harder. This is concerning on the scales of individuals wanting to push themselves, the success of American education as a closed system, and competitiveness on a global scale.

I get it. I really do. The race to college is mysterious and stressful and unfair and all-consuming and exhausting. I’m experiencing all of it. And there’s an elephant in the room: when is it going to stop? Harvard’s acceptance rate has plummeted from 16.1% in 1989 to 6.2% in 2013. It cannot possibly continue to drop at the same rate unless it wants to end up with a negative amount of students. Even at a slower rate of decrease, the population of students who want to go to Harvard is increasing, while the number of spots available is unlikely to change.

How much more competitive can we become? Are we really going to continue until acceptance rates drop to 3%? To .03%? Something has to give, and the new SAT is an attempt at a baby step into the ambiguous future of admissions. As a student and as an intellectual, I remain in opposition. As a human, I am grateful for the efforts to let us breathe easy.



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