Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Who Is to Blame for Cheating on SATs?

The recent Long Island SAT cheating scandal has people asking: is the SAT a fair assessment tool when it's apparent that people can pay smart kids to take the test for them?

That's a valid question. 

See this article by my former prof, Nicolaus Mills. I read it on CNN today:

We've also been asking for a while: is it ethical to put so much emphasis on SAT scores when it's clear that students can be trained--at great expense--to perform well on this exam? Is the obvious correlation of familial wealth and high SAT scores just another example of the shimmering plutocracy and "might makes right" that reigns in the good old USA? 

Poor kids, ones whose parents can't afford costly test prep and have to rely on getting adequate prep in high school (trust me: there is no time for this) don't usually have this same advantage. Therefore, rich and average students might have far higher scores than poor, more-intelligent kids. The rich kids will then gain admission to better the cycle continues.

There are, however, regular kids whose parents will go the extra mile to find and pay for good test prep. Some parents will spend whatever they must to get their kids help. This is commendable, but it is a struggle. Not everyone's parents are so concerned or so selfless--and I don't think that families should have to go into debt just for the sake of the SAT. Even so, it would be nice if parents everywhere paid more attention to their kids' test scores, and worked to get them help (and not the cheating kind).

Another big question now is: should the economic disparity associated with SAT performance nullify its results? Some colleges think so, including my alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College. I agree in principle with SLC's recent decision not to consider the SAT because of this economic (and oftentimes racial) injustice, but I hate to see the college lose its USA Today ranking because of it. That actually bothers me quite a bit.

So what's the answer? Mills points out in his Op Ed that admissions staffs should be expanded in order to allow more attention to be paid to applications and the human beings behind them. I agree with this. He also calls for more interviewing of applicants. I agree with this, too (and I am always shocked when I hear from my students that they applied to 20 schools they've never even visited, and they rarely arranged interviews). I don't know if it will happen, especially at the big state schools, but it's a nice idea.

Getting back to the SAT, though, I personally think the exam needs a re-design. (Yes, I am aware that it just had one.) Even though I spend a great deal of time studying and teaching the SAT and showing my students how to get past its traps, I don't have much faith in the test as a realistic measure of academic ability--merely training.

Specifically, I see issues with the hard-to-grade essay section (and I'm a writer!) and the confusing "improving paragraphs" portion. I would rather see the return of analogies, substituted for some of the weird and nearly pointless, IMO, editing sections.

I don't want to shoot myself in the foot and call for the de-emphasis of the SAT (since I earn much of my living teaching it), but I would ideally like the exam to be more equitable, a more accurate measure of intelligence. This is how the SAT was originally conceived.  I think the first idea was a good one: assess whether students have the native intelligence to succeed in college. 

What happened to move the SAT away from its original purpose? A business empire built up around the exam, the books, and the test prep, while our society changed its expectations and now everyone has to go to college (and grad school).

Besides, it's just easier for the really big schools to assign a number to a student than to assess her or him as a human being with a complex history and talents that might not be apparent on a fill-in-the-bubble test.

It's also easy to pay others to take the test in your place. Despite the ID requirement, people who can afford to pay a test-taker can also pay for fake documents. It happens all the time.

Of course, it's unethical to take the test for someone else. It's also highly unethical to ask and pay someone to be a fake test-taker.

Notice that in the Long Island scandal, the people who are in serious trouble are the students who took the SAT for others. They are facing jail time, fines, expulsion from college, and more.

What about the people who paid them? Why are the worker bees (the ones paid to take the test for others) the ones shouldering the blame and the punishment? These people obviously needed the money. Why is our legal system going after them? I see the test-taking students here as victims who were taken advantage of by ruthless types who had enough coin to get around the system.

I'd like to see some news focusing on the people who pay others to take the SAT for them. Obviously, some parents had to give their kids thousands of dollars to pay others to take the SAT in their place. It seems sort of strange that we're not reading stories about that.

Those thousands of dollars could surely have been better spent.

On test prep.  

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