Wednesday, February 27, 2013

SAT to Be Redesigned...Again.

Half of my professional life, or thereabouts, is spent helping kids master the SAT.  What do I know about this test? That it's now less about native intelligence and more about who has the time and money to seriously prepare.

If you can devote a couple of years to SAT prep, you can get a perfect score. What I've learned since becoming an SAT tutor is that basically anyone can bring home the 800s. It just takes work. If you want it badly enough, you can get there. I've had students who didn't even speak English 18 months before the test end up with perfect Verbal scores. How? They studied.

I have to study, too. The SAT was revamped in 2005, and I had to change my game to match it. Tonight, I heard on NPR  that the College Board has announced yet another SAT redesign. Great--more studying! (I don't actually have a problem with studying.)

The truth is that we are all still feeling the reverberations of the 2005 changes. That overhaul nixed some parts and added others, lengthening the test and making it more expensive--leaving many of us to wonder if money was the point.

Cartoon originally found on

I didn't mind having to rethink how I teach SAT prep when the test underwent its 2005 makeover, but I have never been happy with how the SAT was changed at that time. It's not that I'm a change-averse person; I just expect changes to be improvements. In this case, I don't think the SAT got better.

For example, "editor" is one of my many hats, but I loathe the editing (improving paragraphs) section that was introduced in 2005. I really think it's wrongheaded on the SAT: it doesn't prove much, and it's annoying for students. Bring back something meaningful--like the analogies!

Adding an essay, as they did in '05, was great idea in theory, but absurd in practice...rather like Communism. This was the Big Honking Change. Of course, only 25 minutes were allotted for the newly-added essay. Not enough time, in my opinion. AP exams let students have 40 minutes per essay.

Hey, I know: make the exam longer! I am joking. I wonder if they'll get rid of the essay now? I am betting yes.

As a writing teacher, I do love to be able to teach writing and brainstorming in SAT prep, and I love having the opportunity to hammer home how widely read students will do better on the essay and on the Verbal and Writing sections.

I have graded the SAT essay, however, and it's not a professional experience I would care to repeat. Millions of SAT essays cannot realistically be graded--at least, not graded fairly (they are also quite hard to read; they are scribbled in pencil. Pens are not allowed. Then, they are scanned. We read them on screen. It's a nightmare).

While I grade two dozen SAT essays every weekend in enrichment school, that's different. I feel reasonably compensated for that work. The company that College Board outsources the SAT essays to, though, pays a pittance and made me think: "Now I know what child factory workers must feel like." I can't imagine that any self-respecting English teacher would fall for that sidework scam twice.

I have also seen how the essays are graded. Sometimes, it makes no sense. There is supposed to be a rubric, but I feel that the less-than-a-minute that graders are given leads to a lot of arbitrary, average scores.

Back to the proposed changes: what is proposed for this redesign? We don't actually know. The wording is vague; it's all about making the SAT "relevant" and "realistic."

So what does this mean? Lots of people are worrying already that it means dumbing the test down

AP exams have been dumbed down, I know--especially in English. Just read past years' prompts to get a feel for how much easier the exams are now.

Meanwhile, more and more colleges are becoming "test optional" as the schools realize that the SAT is no longer the pristine predictor of academic success that it once was. 

Yet, rampant grade inflation and wildly fluctuating grades between different schools--whether too easy or too tough--makes grades a difficult way to accurately measure students' worthiness. The SAT used to tell colleges, in effect, "This is how smart, how capable, this applicant is."

But high scores don't necessarily equal super smart. They may just indicate drive. Then again, what's the difference? Drive could be better, in the long run.

And making the SAT optional isn't causing fewer students to take it. Students will do whatever they can to prove their skills to colleges, and it's just getting harder and harder to figure out who is truly a good student with potential.

We are also seeing more students go for the possibly-fairer ACT. That used to a West Coast thing, but now it's nationwide, and more students are finding the test slightly less mean-spirited in terms of traps. 

I have written ACT Verbal questions. I have graded the SAT essay. Which test do I prefer?

I don't prefer either. They both give me business. And so does test prep in general.

Still, I hope that the tests DO become better. I am not sure, however, if I have faith that will happen.