When significant changes to the SAT were announced by the College Board last week, my Facebook newsfeed fired up into a frenzy.
News organizations big and small were quick to break the story, and friends and strangers played arm-chair pundit in the comments sections. Either applauding or denouncing the changes, both supporters and detractors speculated as to the reasons for the broad modifications to take place in 2016.
After a quick read through the headlines and subsequent comments, I couldn’t decide whether the SAT was dumbing itself down for the “lazy, distracted, YouTube generation” or becoming a “less repressive test that previously only catered to the rich and privileged.” So I went to the source, College Board’s website, to make up my own mind.
After a quick analysis of the proposed changes, I came to an immediate conclusion: the SAT is becoming more like the ACT, the other widely accepted college entrance exam. Key changes directly mirror hallmark features of the ACT, for instance: less extensive and less obscure vocabulary, data analysis and science-based passages, no penalty for wrong answers, and an optional essay based on personal experiences. The College Board making the SAT more like the ACT isn’t surprising, as the ACT is considered by many students and educators to be an easier and more accessible test. I wondered then if the College Board introduced sweeping changes merely to respond to losing market share to a younger and more progressive rival.
I turned to Google to investigate my hunch. Soon I stumbled upon a New York Times article that confirmed my suspicions. In the article, Tom Parker, dean of admissions and financial aid at Amherst College, says: “until recently, even within the admissions community, the ACT was to a degree the stepchild of the SAT, So even with my own staff, I had to be scrupulous to be sure both tests were given equal weight. That’s just not an issue anymore. In fact, the ACT has pulled ahead for the first time: 1,666,017 students took the ACT last year; 1,664,479 took the SAT.”
And not only has the ACT overtaken the SAT in sheer volume of tests administered, it’s also challenging the SAT’s position as the gold standard entrance exam: “Of this year’s 26,000 applicants to Princeton, 13 percent, or 3,477 students, submitted only ACT scores — up from 2 percent (385 of 17,000 applicants) for fall 2006.”
And while some proposed changes to the SAT have been described as designed to help low-income and minority students perform better, as well as to make quality test prep more available, it seems reasonable to conclude that the College Board is mainly responding to marketplace competition by announcing a new SAT test. Jon Erickson, president of the ACT’s educational division responded to the changes by saying: “it seems like they’re [The SAT] mostly following what we’ve always done.” Through introducing a test that’s more accessible and palatable to the average student, the College Board hopes to maintain its position as a huge piece in the complicated and lucrative puzzle of college admissions.
Essentially the SAT is giving students and parents what they want by shifting away from a test that quizzes students on broad and sometimes obscure academic knowledge, and moving towards a test that narrowly focuses on a smaller and less daunting set of topics. For students and parents by and large the proposed changes will make preparing for and taking the SAT easier.
But as a liberal arts major and a supporter of learning for its own sake, I can’t help but see these changes as acquiescent and concessionary. Should testing companies make standardized tests easier to please students and parents? Or should we as a nation demand more from our high school students?
In my five years experience as a test prep tutor, I’ve found that if my students would spend the hours they spend on social media reading literature, they’d find the SAT and ACT much easier to tackle. The fact is, many high school students lack the vocabulary and deep comprehension skills that come from long-term readership. 15 hours of test prep cannot over come hundreds of hours you spend on YouTube instead of Thoreau. The SAT is a reading based test, at least until the College Board decides to test high school students on their Call of Duty skills.
And while the current SAT can be tricky, it’s far from an impossible test. It actually does a decent job of measuring student ability in key academic areas needed for college, namely reading, writing, and arithmetic. The test is not written in a foreign language nor in an indecipherable alien script, and in my experience it doesn’t particularly advantage one group over another, but rather favors students who have attended rigorous schools since elementary, participate in extra-curricular reading and learning, and take preparation for the test seriously.
Unsurprisingly though, as college costs have soared, many parents and students have adopted strictly pragmatic views towards higher education. College is first and foremost seen as a stepping stone to a lucrative career. As student loan debt in the United States has surpassed 1 trillion dollars, it’s hard to knock such a view. In fact in my work as an Admissions Consultant I advocate for the completion of rigorous cost benefit analysis and comprehensive planning, before applying to colleges and accepting offers of admission.
Yet in a global, competitive economy, where US students lag behind the vast majority of their first world peers, I see moves like the College Board’s as acceptance of the mediocrity of many of America’s schools and as an implicit endorsement of college as little more than big-business. For individual students, the SAT is becoming easier, which is good. But in the long run, we can’t ameliorate America’s educational short-comings through quick fixes or lowered standards.