Changing the Answer: The New (and Promising) SAT



SAT image

In “The SAT is Not Fair,” an article in today’s New York Times (March 9, 2014), reporter Todd Balf describes the changes afoot in the design of the SAT examination, ones that may be in place for spring 2016. You may have read that the top score will be moved back to 1600 and that the essay portion will be optional. Yet beyond these changes in scoring there are more substantial and promising changes in the nature of the test.

The complaints about the test are well-known.

  • That the test is not a neutral measure of native intelligence as it was originally conceived and still purports to be. Some critics claim have long claimed that the test is culturally biased.
  • That it’s not a good predictor of college success. A number of schools have dropped it as an admission requirement and show that there is no difference in college success outcomes between those who submitted test scores and those who didn’t.
  • That, not surprisingly, there’s a strong correlation between test scores and family income. Thus, in a country of decreased social status mobility, the SAT becomes another engine of inequality.
  • That high-cost test prep services can improve test performance, thus providing advantage to the children of affluence. (Though some research indicates that the boost is, on average, a modest 30 points.) These test services frequently offer ways to master test-taking and to outwit the test-makers. Thus, improvements may be due to skills unrelated to academic knowledge, like using test time efficiently or knowing when to guess.
  • That the test is for the most part untethered from the day-in, day-out school curriculum, thus having two harmful effects: First is the inordinate amount of time spent teaching to the test which has opportunity costs – the sacrifice of time devoted to interesting and engaging learning. Second, the test creates high levels of student anxiety because it is a unique and unfamiliar intellectual activity in addition to being a factor in college admission.
  • That there are a host of problems related to the uses of the test, which may result in a “Warning Label” on the test score report which will emphatically say that the test results should only be one of a number of factors in the admissions decision.

The new approach, as I understand it, will address some of these concerns.

The new test tries to take two factors into account. First, that the test should be one kind of summative evaluation for all of the hours spent learning in the elementary and high school classroom. The second and related factor is that much of that previous learning be part of a national Common Core that will partially help to create a level playing field. The Common Core will emphasize depth rather than breadth of treatment – fewer topics more thoroughly explored. The idea is to move the test in the direction of the well-regarded and popular Advanced Placement Examinations which are tests of content mastery. In a school with a well-designed school curriculum, one is always teaching to the test; the curriculum is not suspended to help prepare for high-stakes examinations used (and abused) by the gatekeepers of the next educational level.

What is most promising is the way in which the “test engineers” are thinking of the Common Core not just as a list of significant events and persons that can be committed to memory but rather as a set of critical rhetorical skills that can be applied to scientific, literary, and historical documents. [How diverse will this list of documents be? Will a Public Enemy rap be selected?] It’s less important to know that Melville wrote Moby Dick in 1855 than it is to be able to discern the rhetorical devices in a selection from “Loomings,” the opening chapter. It’s not enough to know that the Martin Luther King wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail” prior to the “I Have a Dream” speech; rather the focus should be on understanding the challenges of and King’s solutions to addressing white pastors and civic leaders. After reading a passage from Charles Darwin passage, a student should be able to understand why and with what evidence he dismisses previous explanations for a biological phenomenon.

Test questions would be two-tiered. The first question would ask the test taker to draw a conclusion (about something like vocabulary) or interpretation (on something like the communicator’s overall purpose). The subsequent question would ask the test taker to identify the evidence that she used in the making the previous decision.  The aim is to make the new test a much better reflection of analytic and reasoning skills. Or to put it another way, part of seamless secondary school program of evidence-based reading and writing. The regular practice of developing higher order skills in multiple classrooms will prepare students for new, previously unseen, case studies encountered on the test.

Followers of Howard Gardner, the Harvard educational psychologist who advocates the theory of multiple intelligences, will still bemoan the emphasis on the verbal and the quantitative to the exclusion  of the kinetic, visual, and moral intelligences and will argue that the SAT should be abolished rather than redesigned. As will those who believe that even high-performing students in underfunded urban schools will still be at a disadvantage. Access to free internet instruction and partnerships between the College Board, which administers the test, and organizations like The Boys and Girls Club may help to offset the whole set of educational and health deprivations.

As an English teacher, I think of myself primarily as a professional rhetorician dedicated in making my composition and literature students savvy communicators –  creators  and receivers of messages in all sorts of different genres and through all sorts of different channels.  I also like to think that all teachers, especially those in the humanities, are be joined together in the common practice of rhetorical analysis.

So this new vision for the SAT pleases me. The SAT should not be, as it has been for too long, the tail that wags the dog. But it can be part of the mental operating system that helps directs the dog’s motion. The new SAT may bring a new purpose and rigor to the high school curriculum and even get us to think about our higher education learning goals and teaching strategies.

About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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