A Case Against the SAT

Scrolling through Huffington Post Teen, college topics dominate to the point that they have their own sub-sections ("College Prep" and "Mission: Accepted"). The articles carry plenty of amazing stories, offer advice and use personal experience as shared learning. The shared community feeling of teens, all in the same "college-prep" boat, does help. But, one feeling, though, jumps out loud and clear... teenagers are stressed about college. While that's not breaking news, I was struck by how few people -- if any -- actually questioned the college selection process, especially the requirement to take the SAT.

The SAT -- the gateway to the college experience -- doesn't help stress levels. To do well, the main advice is practice tons, and for those who can afford it -- take specialized tutoring and classes to master test-taking strategies. And, don't forget boring repeat testing... of course under testing conditions. If you can't afford private tutors or Princeton Review type classes (and if you care and you can afford internet), spend a lot of time online trying to absorb the tips to understand the test-makers' mind-sets and then answer the way they want you to "provide the best answer."

Preparing for the SAT, then, is a mountain of stress because it is on top of schoolwork and extracurricular activities. Why all of this work for the SAT? It's an exam that doesn't test knowledge or application of content. Instead, students focus on understanding the nature of the questions themselves, which are written in such an eccentric and confusing manner that essential comprehension of how to answer is now required before entering the SAT room. Instead of learning new vocabulary words or math theorems, kids are keenly observing strategies of skipping questions and understanding bizarre word placement. The SATs are designed so that question comprehension is valued more than actual knowledge, and that is not the ideal way to select a group of people to go into one school versus another.

Subject matter areas such as mathematics, critical reading and writing are undoubtedly important in the life of an educated person. Yet, while taking the SATs, students are not mastering these areas' content, but rather mastering the purposefully confusing jargon of the exam. For example in the latter two literature-based assessments, students are encouraged to select "the best" answer, which counters the fundamental open-mindedness of reading and writing. Selecting the "best" answer is not even dependent on understanding the passages. On countless occasions the test writer and I have disagreed on what "the best" answer to a given question is, especially since all of the choices are convolutedly written and none are really qualified to be "the best." As for Math, I just don't like Math, so that isn't a topic to be objectively discussed; however, even the math questions are often written in a way to confuse, versus test actual knowledge of math concepts.

At the same time, all of us know that to enter college and prepare for our induction into "the real world," we have to prove a certain threshold of excellence. The SAT standardized tests have become the tool of choice to certify a student's readiness objectively, but is this system truly as foolproof as it is lauded to be? Or are there are more integral features in a student that must be tested that the SAT has no ability to measure? How can anyone measure excellence? It's so subjective, the college process has about 5 more steps to try and quantify excellence in addition to the SAT -- grades, extracurricular activities, recommendations and application essays. It's the SATs, though, that are supposed to be the great equalizers of the playing field so that there is some objectivity in the college application process.

So, the SAT's purpose is excellent. A standardized test theoretically enables all students to be examined by colleges on equal standing and with clear results. Yet, as clear as those results may be, they are demonstrating the wrong student skills...if any student skills are demonstrated. A standardized test that measures knowledge -- definitions, reading comprehension, analysis, math skills -- is more likely to give a real even playing field than the SAT as currently offered.

Basically, I've always been under the impression that understanding and interpreting information is the characteristic that makes students appealing to colleges. I fail to see how a test as systematic yet convoluted and rudimentary yet confusing as the SAT helps display those traits to college admission teams.

But I may be wrong... what do you think?