The New SATs and the Great Delusion of Excellence
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By Peter Wood,
Minding the Campus
March 10, 2014

The College Board is reformulating the SAT. Again. 

The new changes, like others that have been instituted since the mid 1990s, are driven by politics. David Coleman, head of the College Board, is also the chief architect of the Common Core K-12 State Standards, which are now mired in controversy across the country. Coleman's initiative in revising the SAT should be seen first of all as a rescue mission. As the Common Core flounders, he is throwing it an SAT life preserver. 

The essay is now optional, ending a decade-long experiment in awarding points for sloppy writing graded by mindless formulae.

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The parts of the test that explored the range and richness of a student's vocabulary have been etiolated. The test now will look for evidence that students are familiar with academic buzzwords and jargon. The College Board calls this "Relevant Words in Context." Test-takers won't have to "memorize obscure words" but instead "will be asked to interpret the meaning of words based on the context of the passage in which they appear."

The deductions for guessing wrong are gone. Literally, there will be no harm in guessing. Math will narrow to linear equations, functions, and proportions. The scale on which scores are recorded will revert to the old 800 each on two sections, from the current 2,400 on three sections. (Goodbye essay points.) The old verbal section will be replaced by "evidence-based reading and writing." All the tests will include snippets from America's Founding Documents.

What They Mean
The College Board's announcement of these changes came under the headline "Delivering Opportunity: Redesigning the SAT Is Just One Step." The "delivering opportunity" theme is divided into three parts:

1. Ensure that students are propelled forward.
2. Provide free test preparation for the world.
3. Promote excellent classroom work and support students who are behind.

There is a thicket of explanation behind each of these headings, some of it beyond silly. We learn, for example, that the College Board "cannot stand by while students' futures remain unclaimed." Unclaimed?  Like lottery prizes? Like coats left in a checkroom? If you work your way through this folderol, it appears that the College Board is launching a whole battery of new diversity programs. "Access to Opportunity ("A2O") pushes ("propels") low-income, first-generation, underrepresented students to college. The "All In Campaign" aims "to ensure to ensure that every African American, Latino, and Native American student who is ready for rigorous work takes an AP course or another advanced course." Another program offers college application fee waivers. 

Those initiatives bear on the redesigned SAT mainly as evidence of the College Board's preoccupation with its ideas about social justice. The announcement of the changes in the SAT itself is succinct - and friendly, with helpful icons to get across ideas like "documents."

The redesigned SAT will focus on the knowledge and skills that current research shows are most essential for college and career readiness and success. The exam will reflect the best of classroom work:

  • Relevant words in context
  • Command of evidence
  • Essay analyzing a source
  • Math focused on three key areas
  • Problems grounded in real-world contexts
  • Analysis in science and social studies
  • Founding documents and great global conversation
  • No penalty for wrong answers

The student who comes across the College Board's explanation - and maybe even the journalist who reads it - might miss the full weight of that key phrase "college and career readiness." That's the smoking gun that what is really happening in the College Board's revision of the SAT is that the test is being wrenched into alignment with the Common Core. That phrase, "college and career readiness," is the Common Core mantra. The Common Core was vigorously promoted to the states and to the public as something that would "raise standards" in the schools by creating a nationwide framework that would lead students to "college readiness." 

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But alas, as the Common Core Standards emerged, it became apparent that they set a ceiling on the academic preparation of most students. Students who go through schools that follow the Common Core Standards will be ill-prepared for the rigors of college. That is, unless something can be done on the other end to ensure that colleges lower their standards. Then everything will be well.    

The Bind
None of this might matter if the Common Core were just a baseline and students and schools could easily move above it if they wished to. The trouble is that the Common Core has been designed to be a sticky baseline. It is hard for schools to rise above it. There are two reasons for that.

First, it uses up most of the time in a K-12 curriculum, leaving little room for anything else. 

Second, the states that were leveraged into it via Obama's "Race to the Top" agreed that students who graduate from high school with a Common Core education and are admitted to public colleges and universities will automatically be entered into "credit-bearing courses." This is tricky. Essentially what it means is that public colleges will have to adjust their curricula down to the level of knowledge and skill that the Common Core mandates. And that in turn means that most schools will have little reason to offer anything beyond the Common Core, even if they can. 

In this way, the Common Core floor becomes very much a ceiling too. The changes in the SAT are meant to expedite this transition.

The Common Core Connection
The life-preserver that the College Board is throwing to the Common Core is a redefinition of what it means to be "college ready." The SAT after all is a test aimed at determining who is ready for college. An SAT refurbished to match what the Common Core actually teaches instead of what colleges expect freshmen to know will go far to quiet worries that the Common Core is selling students short. If the SAT says a student is "college ready," who is to say that he is not?  

The new changes in the SAT are meant first to skate around the looming problem that students educated within the framework of the Common Core would almost certainly see their performance on the old SAT plummet compared to students educated in pre-Common Core curricula. The subject can get complicated, so it is best to consider an example.

Perhaps the most vivid example of how the Common Core lowers standards and creates a situation which invites mischief with the SATs is the decision of the Common Core architects to defer teaching algebra to 9th grade. That move, along with several other pieces of the Common Core's Mathematics Standards, generally means that students in high school will not reach the level of "pre-calculus." And that in turn means that as college freshmen, they will be at least a year behind where college freshmen used to be. Instead of starting in with a freshman calculus course, they will have to start with complex numbers, trigonometric functions, conic sections, parametric equations, and the like.

Of course, lots of students who go to college today never take a calculus course and are in no way hindered if their high school math preparation stopped with binomial equations. The trouble comes with students who wish to pursue science, technology, or engineering - the "STEM" fields. College curricula generally assume that students who set out to study these fields have already reached the level of calculus.