The New SAT: A Long Overdue Revision

I have made it no secret in my classes that I am not a fan of the SAT. Actually, that's an understatement: I utterly detest the SAT with a passion. (Wow, it feels liberating to type that.) As most teachers would agree, the SAT in its current form measures absolutely nothing when it comes to academic prowess or high school intelligence. The test measures no degree of intelligence and seems as antiquated as the “sage on the stage” teacher who drones on for an hour or more while students keep their mouths shut – or even worse. Even with the introduction of the writing section a few years ago, the test resembles nothing more than a “guess your way to a perfect score” exam. The fact that test prep companies and private tutors can instruct students on tips and tricks for mastering the exam – as opposed to showing them how to prepare academically for it – leaves the current SAT as nothing more than a money grab for the College Board. (I could say the same about the AP program, but that's a post for another day.) The test doesn't cater to high school students' classroom strengths and instead forces them to master the art of educational guessing. Having a bad day? Too bad, so sad – you still have to take the exam and hope that your guessing works. Don't have fresh batteries for your calculator? Oh well, you still have fingers! In short, the current SAT is a joke of a test. Teachers have been calling for reform for years, and colleges have begun looking closer at the ACT and have even gone test-optional. Throughout all of this, the College Board has had its head in the sand.

Until now.

Bowing to pressure from colleges, high schools, and instructors around the country, the College Board recently announced sweeping changes to the SAT, changes that will arrive in 2016 (sorry, sophomores and juniors). While I won't review all changes here, you can go to the College Board's new website “Delivering Opportunity” to see the breakdown. English teachers, however, should rejoice at the forthcoming changes, which include more analysis and fewer “guess the answer” questions. The essay, while optional, will have students read and critically analyze a short passage, rather than compose a response to a fairly predictable (format-wise, at least) essay prompt. Those piles and piles of flash cards? Burn 'em. Random vocabulary words? Forget 'em. The College Board finally has recognized what really goes on in the English classroom and, in some ways, has affirmed the work of English teachers who focus on skilled writing and critical analysis of literary text. No argument in this corner! I preach revision in my English classes, and the College Board has revised the SAT to the umpteenth degree.

While one might expect near-universal praise for the new test, that clearly has not been the case. Kathleen Parker of The Washington Post opines that the changes will cost teachers valuable information as to whether students can put their thinking skills to work in short timeframes. Parker then takes a swipe at schools themselves, suggesting – no, flat-out accusing – them of grade inflation to pacify students and parents alike. She adds that the changes will result in students not learning “rich vocabulary” and not using diverse sentence structures in their writing. FairTest public education director Bob Schaeffer calls the new SAT “a different test, not an improved one” and argues that grades are the best predictor of college success and that test-optional policies ensure equality and fairness to all applying to college.

Parker's and, to a lesser extent, Schaeffer's, arguments represent the general consensus for critics of the new test. However, like many of those critics, neither Parker nor Schaeffer are classroom teachers and likely rely on research and sheer conjecture/opinion in crafting their responses. Parker's claims about loss of vocabulary and meaningful writing are false; students still can put those tools to good use when composing essays and responses on the new SAT. She seems to feel that memorizing facts, figures, tips, and tricks measure a student's intelligence, but nothing could be farther from the truth. My best students are not those that use flash cards for vocabulary quizzes, but those that look at a text and examine the literary techniques used to compose it. (In fact, and in light of the forthcoming exam, I likely will abolish all vocabulary quizzes and instead have students display vocabulary knowledge responsibly in their writing.) The aforementioned leads me to another point, which is that the College Board is guarding against something many English teachers deplore: the random addition of advanced vocabulary to inflate otherwise weak writing. How many times have we English teachers seen words in essays that clearly do not belong? Students may right-click to find synonyms, but those synonyms may not duplicate the exact meaning of a given word. In the students' minds, however, the new word “sounds” better. The fact remains that writing essays and even short responses are necessary in any English classroom, so intense, critical textual analysis – not meaningless vocabulary and multiple choice exercises – is a must. Parker seems to laud the current SAT essay, but does she realize the utter predictability of the essay prompts? Take one look at the prompts over the years and you will see the pattern: a) a quotation or thought, b) a short reflection on the quotation or thought, and c) the assignment that calls for an essay with support from literature, history, or personal experience. Oh, and if you don't have a personal story, you can make it up. Is that what we want to encourage in the classroom, too? More importantly, what intelligence does that measure? (Perhaps this.)

I refuse to administer multiple choice book tests because they do not measure whether students comprehend the material; they only measure rote memorization. Parker might pine for analogies (abolished in 2005), and they are important in helping students think, but they certainly are not worth an entire section on the SAT. Likewise, when students write essays, I do assess their technical and mechanical skills, but I focus more on their content and analysis of a given topic. Can you tell me the significance of Hester Prynne taking off her scarlet A for a short time in The Scarlet Letter? That's what concerns me most. Students today learn in so many ways, and kudos to those who are memorization masters. However, the public needs to realize that now more than ever, not all students are cut from the same cloth. Like many critics, Parker might want to spend some time in a 21st century English classroom before jumping to conclusions.

I do agree with Schaeffer in that grades should always serve as the primary method of evaluation for colleges in reviewing high school students' applications for admissions. However, with more students applying to colleges, the colleges need more than a GPA (grade point average) to determine academic promise. The new SAT (and the ACT, for that matter) will, at the very least, help break the tie between two students who might have similar profiles but who have different test results. Yes, test-optional policies are increasing and someday may become part of the majority of admissions programs, but for now, universities should have a more accurate set of test results that correlate with academic achievements.

Sure, the changes to the exam are as much of a business decision as they are an academic one. The College Board has lost significant ground to the ACT due to the ACT's proximity to high school curriculum. So, are the changes to the SAT designed to increase the coffers of the College Board? Absolutely – and we could say the same about the ACT seeking close alignment with science, English, and math, all at the high school level. The real money grab, however, occurs with test prep programs, classes, and private tutors (and in full disclosure, I am one of the latter). The test prep industry has become a monster, with students spending thousands of dollars to learn the art of mastering a test by using tips and tricks, not intelligence or knowledge. And for what? Will a 50 point increase make a huge difference in whether a student gains admission to a highly selective college? How many students see significant increases after taking test prep classes? I could go on and on, but The Brooklyn Math Tutors do a great job of explaining my thoughts on test prep in more detail.

We all will learn much more about the new SAT after the first year of administering it to students. I still am not a fan of standardized tests, but these changes are beneficial to students, so I clearly support them. For now, we must be guardedly optimistic that the College Board has created a better test and will continue to work for the students while not undermining teachers. No test of any kind represents perfection, and if the new SAT proves faulty, we'll surely wait for yet another revision. Perhaps by then, all standardized tests will be a thing of the past.

Now, about those AP exams