Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Why Change the SAT? Part 1

By Professor Doom

     In times past, the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the SAT, was key to getting into higher education. Nowadays, anyone can get into college, regardless of aptitude (or interest), and so the test now is only of use for those wanting to get into a real school (there still are a few!), as opposed to the many bogus for-profit and community colleges that infest the US landscape like cancerous sores.

     Now, I totally understand these things can evolve, but institutions of higher education have a hard time adapting. If the test is changed from the year before, then the cutoff score from the year before no longer applies. If there’s a new cutoff score for the new test, and it’s equivalent to the old test, then changing the test is completely irrelevant and only adds confusion. That’s why it’s tough to justify changing the SAT.

     So I don’t really understand why the SAT gets an overhaul every few years, or at least I suspect the motives of such overhauls. There are 8 new changes planned for the SAT. Let’s take a look at them, and see if I can’t read between the lines here.

Relevant Words in Context

Instead of actual vocabulary, the new SAT will have students try to figure out words from their context in a sentence. A common accusation of changes to tests is “watering down”, which means “make it easier.” What does “easier” mean? Well, if you could do the test the before it was changed, and the changes don’t make it harder for you, then either it’s change for the sake of change, or it’s watering down.

Now, a student with vocabulary won’t need the “context” hint, but he will be getting a context hint now. So, yes, this is watering down.

This is what I see in schools that water down their material. The “A” students still get A’s, but instead of a few A’s in a class, there are a dozen or more.

The SAT will also use less obscure words—students that studied to learn obscure words will no longer have an unfair advantage! Oh brother. Yes, this change is straight up watering down of the SAT, since now there’s less of an advantage for studying (isn’t the ability to learn through study part of aptitude?).

Command of Evidence

When students take the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and Essay sections of the redesigned SAT, they’ll be asked to demonstrate their ability to interpret, synthesize, and use evidence
That “interpret, synthesize, and use” phrase is straight out of Bloom’s Taxonomy, a bizarre educationist theory that has less physical evidence going for it than Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster…which is to say, “no physical evidence whatsoever.” That said, I concede this isn’t as blatantly a watering down as the vocabulary change…on the other hand, it does mean that once again actual knowledge will be less useful on the SAT.
I suspect the reason for these changes is because the schools no longer give students much knowledge, and so it doesn’t make much sense to test on knowledge anymore.

Essay Analyzing a Source

The focus of the Essay section on the redesigned SAT will be very different from the essay on the current SAT. Students will read a passage and explain how the author builds an argument to persuade an audience. 

The old essay portion of the SAT is gone, but students can still write an essay for this part. Again, it won’t be requiring the student have any knowledge going in…and this section will be considered optional.

Removal of essay is rather scary for me; there are so many “we’ll write essays for you” sites available that basically no online degree is worth the paper it’s not even printed on, and even “brick and mortar” schools have no way to deal with students that simply buy their papers.  A high school student can just as easily hire a writer as a college student.

The end result is there’s no longer any reason to suspect a high school graduate can write, unless you put that student in a controlled situation. Unfortunately, the SAT doesn’t want that responsibility. That’s a shame.

Focus on Math that Matters Most

Time and again, administration forces me to remove content from my courses because “students don’t need it.” The SAT is clearly influenced by these same administrators, because they’re taking out all that obscure math stuff. I should point out admin has taken “areas of squares and rectangles” out of courses as “unnecessary content,” to give some idea of how little there will be.

“Hi. We’re selling a plot of land that’s 100 feet on one side, and 120 feet on the other. How many square feet is that?”

--a top high school graduate asked me, his “math professor friend” for help with a mathematical concept not addressed in school. Smart guy, good grades…but that sort of mathematical material is no longer necessary for graduating high school.

This is watering down—any student that can handle obscure math topics will have no trouble with “math that matters most,” with what matters most determined by administrators. That’s a shame, because the end result will be that it’ll be that much harder to determine if the top scorers on the SAT are really good students, or just mediocre students that are good at the watered down standards.

Problems Grounded in Real-World Contexts

Throughout the redesigned SAT, students will engage with questions grounded in the real world, questions directly related to the work performed in college and career.
In the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section, reading questions will include literature and literary nonfiction, but also feature charts, graphs, and passages like the ones students are likely to encounter in science, social science…

Again, this is a “removal of knowledge” change. Not necessarily watered down, mind you, but I definitely see a trend here, which I hope the reader can determine as well.

There are more changes, but I’ll investigate those next time.


  1. You wrote that "it’ll be that much harder to determine if the top scorers on the SAT are really good students, or just mediocre students that are good at the watered down standards." However, once the standards are watered down, if the formerly mediocre students can now meet them so easily, they become the good students, that's all. Those who would have been really good students under the old system either become exceptionally good according to the new standards, or their extra knowledge becomes irrelevant for testing purposes. It's like being a good cook, knowing how to change a tire or speaking a foreign language that is simply not part of the testing. The knowledge is not necessarily useless, on the contrary. It's just that it is not considered for the purposes of this test.

    1. Actually, no. The top student would have a 1300, and stand out amongst the tens of thousands of students.

      But, now, the top student gets a 1300...as does a thousand other students. One the "best" is lowered, then the best don't look so good.

    2. But why shouldn't the highest scores be within reach for most people of normal intelligence provided, of course, that they are willing to study seriously? Is it fair to rig the test in a way that keeps the scores low for the vast majority of people?

    3. If those who have the intellectual capability shouldn't be allowed to have the top score on exams such as the SAT or GRE, then any butterfingers should be allowed to play quarterback in professional football and any one tone-deaf and having a tin ear should sing the lead in "La Traviata". Why are standards acceptable for entertainment and sports but not in education?

    4. Those who have the intellectual capability should be allowed to have the top score. Only, there should be many such people. Standards are acceptable. It's just that in education, most normal people should be able to get 100%. I have always understood standards as some kind of minimum, not as a way to exclude the vast majority of the population.

      In professional football or opera singing, there are very few highly paid positions. Of course they are very hard to get. In education, there are many places and it is the students (or someone else on their behalf) who must pay. Of course the standards should be closer to what the intelligent but rather average person can realistically achieve.

    5. I, for one, am glad that there were high standards. It gave me something to work towards. I knew I might not get there, but it didn't prevent me from trying. In no way did I ever feel that those high standards excluded me.

      If I was to qualify for the rewards of those standards, I had to *earn* them by virtue of hard work, talent, and, often, a bit of luck. Simply "paying", as you put it, only allowed me the opportunity to participate, not to purchase the end result.

      The student is *not* a customer.