SAT Changes Like New and Improved Dishwashing Detergent

David Coleman has been promising for a while now to change the SAT, to align it to common core and improve what he believed was becoming an antiquated test. Just this statement alone frightened many in the homeschooling community into worrying that they too needed to adopt the common core standards in their teaching. Up until recently there were no details about what specific changes the College Board was planning for the SAT. But that changed this week when David Coleman revealed in a speech at SXSWedu speech in Austin TX what those changes are going to be.

The essay will be optional, and will be based on a source document included in the test. The top test score will be 1,600 — as it was before 2005, when the writing section and essay were added. The test’s two mandatory sections, “evidence-based reading and writing,” and math, and will take up to three hours to complete. The essay will take up to 50 minutes, and will be scored separately.

Some math questions will prohibit calculator use. Students will no longer lose points for wrong answers. The test will be available both in print and digitally. The price hasn’t been announced.

The test will get rid of “old” words that no one except George Will uses anymore. No more vocab drilling for kids. In fact, Coleman wants to end all the test prep drilling. “We need to get rid of the sense of mystery and dismantle the advantages that people perceive in using costly test preparation.” That will be accomplished through a partnership of the College Board with Khan Academy to provide a YouTube-based free test prep and study guide. The videos will even have  practice problems from actual SAT tests.

I have my own problem with the shift in focus on vocabulary. Having watched, and listened to, my own children, I have noticed that the need for a rich descriptive language has not diminished. However, by not teaching them the wide pool of English words already defined and understood by society, what the current generation does is create their own words. In some cases they create a meme, or picture based lexicon to portray a concept. Most of them know the dramatic gopher, sarcastic Willy Wonka, and Bad Teacher memes because they lack the vocabulary to succinctly convey the concept expressed in those pictures. In other cases they invent new words like totes, short for totally. The problem with these new words is that they don’t share a wide societal understanding of their meaning (think twerk and slane) and quickly go in and out of use. Sure it is slang, but slang is just a placeholder for people who don’t know the right word to use.

But I digress…

A bit of history on the SAT is helpful at this point. Prior to the existence of sorting tools like the SAT and ACT, college admissions was more a matter of connections and money. If you came from the wrong family and had little money, but possessed the skills to succeed in a rigorous academic environment, you had little chance of getting colleges to look at you. This was not only unfair to the individuals involved, but caused society to miss out on having great intellects like Thomas Sowell contribute to our advancement. In 1926 the Educational Testing Service decided a test of aptitude that everyone could take would level the playing field for college admissions. It is ironic that only about 90 years later we are saying that the means of leveling the playing field is actually creating an advantage gap, once again providing a better outcome for those of means.

The blog Curmudgucation has a wonderful take on the SAT revision that while irreverent and snarky (see even I use slang) hits the nail on the head with the actual goal of the College Board and David Coleman.

Let’s face it. The SAT is a doddering dinosaur of a test. Research just proved for the umpteenth time that it doesn’t predict college success as well as high school GPA, and proving that is laced with loads of cultural bias has become a training exercise for freshmen-level research assistants. The old girl needs a facelift, a tummy tuck, and a boob job. It’s not that I particularly care about the validity or usefulness of the test, but we are losing market share to the ACT and some colleges are starting to ignore us altogether. We’ve got a product to move, and that means releasing this year’s hot new model to stir up the customer base.

Jay P. Greene joins in the witty repartee.

No man, the new SAT will test for words people really use when they are all-like career and college ready,  like “drill-down” and “synergy.”  As that excellent SAT company says “the SAT will focus on words that students will use consistently in college and beyond.”  Yeah, like “bong” and “extended unemployment benefits.”

Coleman also revealed a big portion of the change – the essay. It will change to this uniform question.  “As you read the passage in front of you, consider how the author uses evidence such as facts or examples, reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence, and stylistic or persuasive elements to add power to the ideas expressed. Write an essay in which you explain how the author builds an argument to persuade an audience.” Only the source material will vary. According to the AP, this is supposed to measure students’ ability to” analyze and explain how an author builds an argument, instead of measuring the coherence of the writing but not the quality or accuracy of the reasoning.”

So if we are giving everyone access to “test prep,” and getting rid of those really hard vocabulary words, and only asking kids to critique (sorry Mr. Coleman, what you are asking in the essay question in not an analysis) another author’s writing, I predict a massive upswing in SAT scores. If colleges are expected to rely on SAT scores for admissions criteria, I see a correlated rise in college admissions. I hope the home schoolers are paying attention. Teach what you know your children really need in life, have them spend a couple weeks before the SAT watching YouTube and they should be all set for college.

By Anne Gassel
Missouri Education Watchdog

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