Dumbing down the SAT

As a former tutor and poor public school student who excelled on the SAT, I hold strong feelings about the College Board’s decision to overhaul the exam’s future structure. In March, College Board President David Coleman publicized some changes: a more generous fee waiver program to help low-income students and a partnership with Khan Academy to offer free online test preparation. I applaud the College Board for those steps toward a fairer college admissions process. But Coleman also announced an exclusion of certain vocabulary words, elimination of the writing section, a new and optional essay, a narrower focus in math, and removal of the guessing penalty—all to take effect in 2016. These modifications are unwise and regressive and will result in a college entrance exam that fails in its purported mission to provide a standardized evaluation of students’ academic and analytical abilities.

The trivial changes are the removal of the guessing penalty and the narrower focus in math. The penalty just represents the zero expected value of guessing. The old system rewards educated guessing; the new one will not punish haphazard guessing. Nonetheless, the penalty will be removed to match the SAT’s competitor the ACT. The math section will emphasize topics such as complex functions, linear equations, and proportional reasoning in an effort to align with high school coursework. This change is again an attempt to emulate the ACT. It means the math section will sacrifice breadth for depth, which could discourage students from using advanced algebraic thinking.

The first major change is the exclusion of certain vocabulary words that the College Board has deemed obscure and incompatible with high school curricula. However, some of the allegedly obscure words exist in college humanities and social sciences literature. The College Board plans to replace the obscure words with friendlier ones such as “empirical” and “synthesis.” Perhaps it gave weak examples, but students should know those two words upon entering high school, not college. Finally, there is truth in the claim that a few words exist only in SAT preparation material. But in discovering the words, students can cultivate a spirit of learning, a happiness from understanding new vocabulary. Besides, using those obscure words might even impress their high school teachers.

Deletion of the entire multiple-choice writing section is far more radical. I recall from my Georgia public school experience that English grammar was not covered comprehensively, and this phenomenon is not local. A 2012 Penn State study by Drew Singel found that my generation’s grammar skills continue to decline. Students should be worried that their grammar is suffering because it is the lone objective part of writing, and all academic fields appreciate clean, clear prose. Eliminating the writing section will encourage high school teachers and students to further neglect grammar and will worsen students’ quality of writing.

Perhaps the worst change is making the essay optional. At a time when teenagers need strong writing skills more than ever, letting students opt out of writing the essay sends the message that timed, philosophic, and persuasive writing is unimportant. Also, my practice with the SAT essay has helped in college: Some of my humanities and social science exams required answering broad questions with little preparation. Finally, the new essay will consist of a source and a prompt to analyze its technique. This format will be derivative of AP English Language questions that should not be repeated on the SAT. A dry exercise of literary analysis, the new essay will restrict creativity and thought in an already ordered exam.

The College Board says the changes aim to focus on essential college skills. I think they will decrease the SAT’s rigor. But what are the real reasons behind the SAT’s reform? There has not been much criticism of the current SAT, except from educators who simply dislike standardized testing. Perhaps the College Board struggles to maintain its market share. According to the New York Times, 1.8 million students took the ACT in 2013 compared to 1.7 million for the SAT. In an ideal world where high school academics can be compared across states and subjective measures such as interviews and letters of recommendation can perfectly evaluate applicants, college entrance exams are superfluous. But we do not live in such a world and therefore value the SAT. The proposed changes will diminish its utility to colleges and inadvertently harm students. The SAT was originally designed to find brilliance among the masses and should preserve that intent. I believe it is unfortunate that the College Board has prioritized popularity over performance.

One thought on “Dumbing down the SAT

  • March 28, 2014 at 12:02 am
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    “The College Board plans to replace the obscure words with friendlier ones such as “empirical” and “synthesis.” Perhaps it gave weak examples, but students should know those two words upon entering high school, not college. Finally, there is truth in the claim that a few words exist only in SAT preparation material. But in discovering the words, students can cultivate a spirit of learning, a happiness from understanding new vocabulary. Besides, using those obscure words might even impress their high school teachers.”

    I think we need to realize that knowledge of “obscure words” is very much the result of long-term socioeconomic privilege and cannot be learned by intention alone. The fact that these obscure words, which overwhelmingly favor privileged, private-school students, are being deemphasized means that more people will be able to gain entry by skill alone.

    The entire article just seems very grounded in your own experience as a smart kid who was a good test-taker (as you generously inform us in the first sentence) and had a wide vocabulary. This is not the background many potentially brilliant students are coming from, and they are being unfairly disadvantaged because of this.

    I would also disagree with your assertion that “A dry exercise of literary analysis, the new essay will restrict creativity and thought in an already ordered exam.” The old essay system basically encouraged reductionist sophistry and intellectual dishonesty by providing broad questions that students had to answer with no chance to refer to outside materials. Literary analysis is much more “rigorous” than encouraging bullshitting, for lack of a better word.

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