Why the College Board is making changes to the SATs
Let the anxiety begin. The first line of the newly printed New York Times article reads, “Saying its college admission exams do not focus enough on the important academic skills, the College Board announced on Wednesday a fundamental rethinking of the SAT, eliminating obligatory essays, ending the long-standing penalty for guessing wrong, and cutting obscure vocabulary words.”
The College Board is advertising a newer test as a way to address social injustice. It is a flimsy defense against the criticisms of a test the College Board has administered for 81 years that is virtually impossible for most students to test in the top 10th percentile unless they can afford tutoring and materials. The reality is that the SAT has fallen behind the ACT in terms of test numbers and the College Board wants to make money. The College Board long held a monopoly as the only college entrance examination, but in the 1960s, the ACT emerged as a response to the SAT, long identified by many as a classist, and arguably racist, test. In 2013, 1.8 million students took the ACT as opposed to 1.7 million sitting for the SAT. Actions speak far louder than words, so let us examine what the College Board is doing rather than what it is saying.
SAT scoring will return to the system where the scores will be up to 1600, with a top math score of 800, a top “Evidence-Based Reading and Writing” score of 800, and the writing section optional. This seems to be a “back to the future approach” when once upon a time, the SAT consisted of a top math score of 800, a top “verbal” score of 800, and an optional written section. This is tantamount to an admission of defeat with the retooled SAT as most college admissions departments never really adopted the writing portion of the exam in their processes because of the constant confusion surrounding it. Furthermore, the college prep media never embraced the 2400 point exam. Even the “Bible” of college admissions, the “U.S. News and World Report” college guide, stuck to the 1600-point scale in its collegiate assessments.
This is not to say that I think that the SAT should remove the written section altogether. I think that would be a mistake. The strength of the SAT essay is to demonstrate that a student can write a clear, concise essay in a tightly timed (25 minute) setting, using proper grammar, punctuation, spelling, a range of sentence structures, and apt vocabulary. There have been cases where the College Board essay was compared against student’s college application essay to determine how polished the college application essay was by counselors, teachers, and parents.
Apparently, changes coming to the exam are going to be extensive: The SAT’s “rarefied” vocabulary words will be replaced by words that are common in college courses, such as “empirical” and “synthesis.” I sincerely hope I am not being abstruse in my query, but by what empirical metric is the College Board quantifying the syntax and lexis of the collegiately adept as opposed to the grammar and vocabulary of the vernacular? And doesn’t this mean a lessening of the rigor of the exam without actually making preparation easier?
In addition, the use of a calculator will no longer be allowed on some math sections. In fact, most students must purchase $100 to $200 calculators for their daily math classes. That is the reality of today’s schools, but the College Board has now arbitrarily decided that students who have used calculators in math classes for a generation, should now suddenly perform on a potentially life-changing exam without them. That Pandora’s box has long been opened and cannot now be closed and still be representative of a student’s high school work. This alone undermines the College Board’s credibility as experts in measuring student performance.
The College Board touts its fee waiver program that allows students with limited means to send scores to up to four schools free of charge. The College Board has always offered this program, but the process is labyrinthine and the waivers are ridiculously difficult to obtain, and the process must be repeated completely for each sitting for the exam. The College Board does not mention any improvement in this little-known program; it merely reiterates that the program exists.
Perhaps the most disingenuous statement is that, “It is time for the College Board to say in a clearer voice that the culture and practice of costly test preparation that has arisen around admissions exams drives the perception of inequality and injustice in our country.” Big words for an institution that has for 81 years said nothing about the iniquities of its exams, and who charges an additional $60 for online software with six tests, and charges $19 for each time a student wants a copy of his test.
The Blue Book, a ponderous manual the College Board condones (and publishes for $21.99) as the only “Official SAT Study Guide,” is half useless. Literally, one entire half of the book is filled with jargon that is intended to detail the skills necessary for test success and instead ends up confusing readers, because everything is so poorly explained.
The second half of the book features 10 real SAT exams riddled with errors. For an extra $10, the College Board will sell you a Blue Book with a CD with videos that makes a far better coaster than an effective preparation tool. And best of all, the Blue Book does not come with an explanation section, so that students can learn from the examiner how they will be examined.
And from the looks of the cease and desist letters sent to some educators who try and write explanation sections to the Blue Book, the College Board does not want anyone else explaining its tests either.
The College Board created the test preparation industry by the College Board’s lack of direction and student outreach. It is not the test preparation industry that drives the perception of iniquity. It is the very necessity of such an industry that is the iniquity. It is an artificially created iniquity that the College Board wants to continue to profit from.
Frances Kweller is an education and testing standards expert and CEO of Kweller Test Prep in Queens.