College Board leader fails SAT test

The latest pronouncement from the College Board, that private corporation that makes millions devising standardized tests, reveals that its vice president for higher education, James Montoya would definitely fail the statistics section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).

Montoya declared on NPR that, for the third year in a row, SAT scores have declined and fewer and fewer students are "college ready." And, to make matters worse, the gap that pushes African American and Latino students to the bottom has widened. His solution? We must get students to take the core college prep classes and we must make these classes more rigorous. Apparently the students who take more rigorous core courses and who take the practice SAT are doing better on the SAT.

Well, duh. Any high school senior would tell you, though, that Montoya has very likely confused correlation with causation. Yes, those kids who take the full college prep core courses and take the PSAT are going to do better. And, guess what? The kids with access to well-funded schools that offer effective core courses also come from upper middle class and wealthy neighborhoods. You could as well conclude that children who eat steak and lobster regularly and attend country club dances in the summer do better on the SAT so we should provide more steak and lobster and country clubs.

Montoya has no idea if the courses helped students do well on the SAT. How many of the privileged kids had private SAT tutors? How many find the language, the examples, the framing of the SAT to be perfectly congruent with their home culture?

The College Board has simply discovered the obvious, that students with certain privileges do better on the SAT. We can also point out that family income pretty much correlates with the first standardized test kids take in third grade. And the scores on later tests and SAT's pretty much correlate with how kids did on that test in third grade. We could save a lot of time and money by simply lining kids up by income and giving blue ribbons to the top 30%.

But there is no hesitation, no qualifying of pronouncements, on the part of College Board. The declining test scores have inspired a "call to action" to push our schools to have more "rigorous core courses" in high school. Indeed, Dr. Montoya used the word "rigor" eight times in a brief interview. We need more rigor. Classes must have rigor. What exactly does he mean by this? Too often such calls are really demanding a curriculum filled with rigor mortis.

Right now the math curriculum is framed to peak at calculus, a discipline that is actually useful only in some fields, like physics. We would hesitate to direct math to culminate in something useful to all citizens like statistics, because that is just not rigorous. Many commentators, like Nicholas Baker have decried the unnecessary torture of such subjects. Science is too often taught like a set of settled truths, facts to memorize. History, which should be thrilling and engaging, becomes one of the most hated courses in the dull test-prep way we are pushed to teach it.

I don't want to make the same mistake as the College Board by trying to divine the exact cause of the decline of SAT scores. But we must certainly admit this: the SAT and standardized testing industry reign supreme over our schools; they have set the curriculum and the goals that administrators bow down to; it is their watch. With standardized testing narrowing and dumbing down the curriculum, reducing it to test prep and rote learning, it is no surprise that young people are more bored, more disengaged, more resistant. Instead of abandoning the tests that have done so much damage, the College Board proposes that we cede more power to them. This is just, to invoke a favorite SAT word, unscrupulous.