March 13, 2014
It turns out that SAT words were too abstruse.
The College Board is updating its iconic test yet again in ways that are indistinguishable from dumbing it down. The old vocabulary words are out, the math is easier, guessing is no longer punished in the scoring — and we’re supposed to believe that the test is better than ever.
The SAT, relied on heavily in college admissions, has long been attacked for not producing sufficiently egalitarian results. The multiple-choice test has been accused of everything from racism to classism. It is almost certainly the most hated exam in America, and the easiest way to placate the critics is simply to make it less exacting.
The last round of changes 10 years ago eliminated the analogies (e.g., zenith: nadir::pinnacle: valley) and instituted an essay. This was supposed to be an upgrade, but the mandatory essay is now being discarded. Peter Wood of the National Association of Scholars describes it as “a decade-long experiment in awarding points for sloppy writing graded by mindless formulae.”
The new SAT will move away from what a reporter in The New York Times calls — obviously relying on his readers’ knowledge of old SAT vocabulary — “esoteric” words. Instead, the test will emphasize “evidence-based reading.” The head of the College Board says an example would be an excerpt from an old speech by Rep. Barbara Jordan in which she said that the impeachment of Richard Nixon would divide people into two parties. Students taking the test would then have several choices for what Jordan meant by the word “party.” (Students answering a gathering to celebrate an occasion, or to drink with friends, will presumably get no credit.)
The SAT is called an instrument of privilege because students from higher-income families perform better. But parental educational attainment tracks with parental income, and highly educated parents will inevitably pass along their advantages to their kids. It is not in the power of the SAT to change this. As Robert VerBruggen of the website RealClearPolicy writes, “Income gaps are evident on basically every academic measure we have.”
The changes and a partnership with the free online Khan Academy are supposed to frustrate the test-prep industry, which is taken to be another unfair advantage for rich kids. There are two fallacies here, though. The first is that test-prep makes an enormous difference in scores. It bumps them up by about 30 points on average. The second is that minority kids get no test prep. According to research cited by Inside Higher Ed, slightly higher percentages of black and Hispanic students than white students use test prep, and they make slightly higher gains on their scores on average.
The SAT is hardly perfect. It isn’t strictly an aptitude test: The more you read and the more math you know, the better you are going to do. Maybe we should go all the way and use achievement tests instead? But that has its own problems, as Howard Wainer of the University of Pennsylvania pointed out in his book “Uneducated Guesses.” How much does proficiency in one subject area weigh against another? And this doesn’t help if a student is in a rotten school that teaches nothing.
The SAT aims to predict first-year performance in college, with only modest success. The test explains about 24 percent of the variation in performance during the first year of college, while high-school GPA explains 34 percent, according to Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown University. But when the two are combined, they account for 41 percent of the variation. With its broader, more general approach, the SAT provides different information about students than either GPA or achievement tests. It is a useful tool.
At the end of the day, the problem isn’t the SAT, it’s ourselves. We have to do a better job raising and educating kids. That is much harder than complaining about the SAT, and the College Board can’t do them for us.