At Risk Students: Changes in the SAT Amount to Nothing Useful

Summary: New changes in the SAT serve only to respond to increased market share on the part of the ACT, and distract from the business of improving schools and stimulating at risk students to make use of opportunities before them.

The forces of change signifying nothing have landed for the moment on the exalted SAT, or Scholastic Aptitude Test, for the second time in a decade; the SAT has announced sweeping changes to its iconic college entrance exam.
The SAT for much of the second half of the twentieth century was the dreaded marker of collegiate readiness, joined by the ACT, or American College Test, increasingly as the century moved to a close. The SAT historically has purported to measure thinking ability, though according to critics the examination is couched in materials biased toward those from educated families, while the ACT has claimed to measure what students have learned to that point in their schooling, though that also puts those low income students who have attended mediocre or worse schools at a disadvantage. Tough to be low income in this system and aspire to higher.
The two tests share an ugly but poorly kept secret. Neither is predictive of college success beyond the first semester of freshman year, yet applicants produce stomach acid and the system generates revenue every year for both the SAT and the ACT, in a dance of questionable enterprise, the very definition of inertia at work.
A growing number of colleges have responded in rational fashion, and no longer require either the SAT or the ACT as part of application, though the majority of their applicants continues to provide a score.
Critics, including syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker (“The New SAT don’t care ‘bout no fancy words”) wag that the changes in the SAT are in response to challenges to its market share by the ACT, which recently overtook the elder test in the number of tests administered. Ouch for the establishment. Looking at the figures, it is hard not to conclude that the SAT change represents competition at work.
Among other assorted changes, the SAT will begin to feel more like the ACT by framing test questions around what is assumed the student learns in high school, for example vocabulary typically used in college preparation, but short of the abstruse variety for which the SAT has become notorious. Not coincidentally, the relatively new president of the SAT, David Coleman, was heavily involved in the creation of Common Core standards and curricula, the latest new dish on the plate of educators across the nation, and which are designed to make all students “college ready.”
Parker, in her wittily acerbic, sometimes distracting way, charges that the new SAT is a dumbing down of standards to make it easier for low income students to make the grade in the college entry sweepstakes.
Not sure about that dumbing down. Parker may be betraying her own elite perspective.
Seems to me it is progress to take one impediment to the rise of lower economic students off the table, namely the advantage to relatively wealthy kids from middle and upper class backgrounds raised in enriched home environments with educated parents, and make the proving ground a rigorous school based curriculum, theoretically available to all regardless of family background. Theoretically, I say, because clearly too many low income youth do not attend schools that fit that definition, or in echo of their parents’ patterns they neglect the opportunity their schools do have.
So opportunity remains blunted for a sizeable minority.
It is here that Ms. Parker finds an estimable stride. “If we truly want to improve everyone’s chance at eventual employment and success, the playing field needs to be plowed and seeded well before the harvest of standardized testing.”
“It starts with schools and teachers, and everybody knows it.”
In some ways, the SAT and the ACT were both an attempt to cull the college ready from the bewildering range of student applicants from secondary schools of disparate depth and quality. The first truly wide scale administrations of the SAT were in the immediate post Second World War period, and have continued to this day with some alterations.
After all these years, such testing has been shown to be inferior to the predictive strength of a strong high school record in rigorous course work. Its continuing existence as a rite of passage is transparently a social illusion pursued by the anxiety of parents and students, and to a lesser degree maintained by vested interests, of which the SAT and the ACT are two parties.
The staying power of these tests is remarkable as pivotal items in the collective imagination. A recent story in the New York Times about the changes in the SAT elicited over 550 comments; in the Washington Post 350. Everyone has an angle of approach; most of those making comment, professionals and lay folk alike, have ideas how to improve these imperfect constructs.
So I return to my opening gambit. The newly “new” SAT represents the triumph of the forces signifying nothing and marking the road to nowhere ultimately useful.
I do find myself wondering what these realities about one set of testing, the SAT and the ACT, imply for the obsessive search for improved test results in our public schools, which so far seem to have made mostly anecdotal and relatively isolated gains. Though I have supported moderate skills testing both to guide progress and to help evaluate teachers, these meditations on college entrance testing can’t help but cast doubt on all that enterprise, and make me wonder if one day in the indeterminate future the illusion of testing’s efficacy will come into policy focus, and more solid ground will be discovered in the commitment of students simply to rigor and the empowerment of a teaching corps to seal that bond.


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1 Response to At Risk Students: Changes in the SAT Amount to Nothing Useful

  1. Deb says:

    Interesting. I had no idea the SAT has gone through so little change in so many years.

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