Saving the Appearances: Long Live the SAT

The SAT would again be transformed. Back to the old 1600 score. No more obscure vocabulary. No specialized math. No penalties for wrong guesses.
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A huge shakeup in the world of higher education was announced on Wednesday: The SAT would again be transformed. Back to the old 1600 score. No more obscure vocabulary. No specialized math. No penalties for wrong guesses. Helping less-advantaged students prep, free, with the help of Khan Academy. Four free college applications to needy students.

And, instead of an easy-to-game-through-test-prep-tricks essay, no more required writing sample.

Maybe this is all to capture the share of the market that has recently been lost to the ACT, or to colleges that have gone SAT-optional when they discovered the SAT provided little useful information about students' likely success.

Maybe it is sincere recognition of the divide between the privileged and the nonprivileged.

Maybe there is some appreciation that specialized math knowledge will not predict most students' first-year college success. (I understand -- really -- that geometry and algebra are not that specialized. But most people don't use most of it in college. Or after.)

Maybe it is because it became clear that the essays were not really evaluating good writing but only the trappings of good writing, such as length and highfalutin vocabulary or throwing in quotations from august sources.

All this is improvement.

But still we are giving enormous power to what is essentially a time-saving device for college admissions offices.

We know that high school grades correlate with college grades. And the SAT correlates with first-year college grades.

The SAT is supposed to provide some opportunity for students to demonstrate abilities beyond their high school performance. Yet scores have always correlated with socioeconomic status: The higher the student's income, the higher the SAT scores (on average). There are occasional surprises. And it is faster for college admissions officers, deluged with the storms of applications, to glance at SAT and GPA (grade-point average) than to read a letter of recommendation that says something honest and meaningful. It can be automated.

The writing part will now stop rewarding students taught to memorize quotations and throw them in, showing off their cultural capital, and require analysis. So people will develop formulas for text analysis.

Test prep will go on.

The haves will continue to have more.

The have-nots will continue to be waiting outside the gates.

But the bigger questions are hard to address, so like Ptolemaic astronomy, we fix the details without questioning the system.

And the big questions are:

  • How do we address poverty and inequality?
  • What is the role of higher education in terms of providing opportunities for individuals and for society as a whole?
  • Does academic success truly cause worthwhile life work and happiness?
  • Should everyone go to college? If not, applications would fall and admissions officers would have more time to assess each applicant.
  • What are students learning, how are they learning it, and why?

Assessments, I have been assured, are not inherently evil. But to the extent that a huge test will drive a lot of behavior in preparation for that test, it will divert attention and time from other things. Ask the Chinese or South Koreans, where a single test is truly a college-entrance examination. The SAT is not quite that powerful because we have a multitude of paths toward higher education, and many paths are almost un-gated.

So the SAT will control some of what passes for education in the sense that ambitious students will spend a lot of time and a huge amount of money preparing for it. The wealthy will still get higher scores and will still go to higher-ranked schools.

But the conversations surrounding this "upgrade" are valuable. And, pending the Copernican revolution in education (and it is brewing, believe me), we can tinker and make some progress in "saving the appearances."

Should a high school student have learned about the history of astronomy and physics, and should a reference to this appear on the new SAT, such a student would understand my allusion.

My guess is that plenty of smart, educated people may have missed that lesson.

And that your view of that gap may correlate with your view of the new SAT.

Analyze this.

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