The College Board is reformulating the SAT. Again.
The new changes, like others that have been instituted since the mid 1990s, are driven by politics. David Coleman, head of the College Board, is also the chief architect of the Common Core K-12 State Standards, which are now mired in controversy across the country. Coleman's initiative in revising the SAT should be seen first of all as a rescue mission. As the Common Core flounders, he is throwing it an SAT life preserver.
The essay is now optional, ending a decade-long experiment in awarding points for sloppy writing graded by mindless formulae.
The parts of the test that explored the range and richness of a student's vocabulary have been etiolated. The test now will look for evidence that students are familiar with academic buzzwords and jargon. The College Board calls this "Relevant Words in Context." Test-takers won't have to "memorize obscure words" but instead "will be asked to interpret the meaning of words based on the context of the passage in which they appear."
The deductions for guessing wrong are gone. Literally, there will be no harm in guessing. Math will narrow to linear equations, functions, and proportions. The scale on which scores are recorded will revert to the old 800 each on two sections, from the current 2,400 on three sections. (Goodbye essay points.) The old verbal section will be replaced by "evidence-based reading and writing." All the tests will include snippets from America's Founding Documents.
What They Mean
The College Board's announcement of these changes came under the headline "Delivering Opportunity: Redesigning the SAT Is Just One Step." The "delivering opportunity" theme is divided into three parts:
1. Ensure that students are propelled forward.
2. Provide free test preparation for the world.
3. Promote excellent classroom work and support students who are behind.
There is a thicket of explanation behind each of these headings, some of it beyond silly. We learn, for example, that the College Board "cannot stand by while students' futures remain unclaimed." Unclaimed? Like lottery prizes? Like coats left in a checkroom? If you work your way through this folderol, it appears that the College Board is launching a whole battery of new diversity programs. "Access to Opportunity ("A2O") pushes ("propels") low-income, first-generation, underrepresented students to college. The "All In Campaign" aims "to ensure to ensure that every African American, Latino, and Native American student who is ready for rigorous work takes an AP course or another advanced course." Another program offers college application fee waivers.
Those initiatives bear on the redesigned SAT mainly as evidence of the College Board's preoccupation with its ideas about social justice. The announcement of the changes in the SAT itself is succinct - and friendly, with helpful icons to get across ideas like "documents."
The redesigned SAT will focus on the knowledge and skills that current research shows are most essential for college and career readiness and success. The exam will reflect the best of classroom work:
- Relevant words in context
- Command of evidence
- Essay analyzing a source
- Math focused on three key areas
- Problems grounded in real-world contexts
- Analysis in science and social studies
- Founding documents and great global conversation
- No penalty for wrong answers
The student who comes across the College Board's explanation - and maybe even the journalist who reads it - might miss the full weight of that key phrase "college and career readiness." That's the smoking gun that what is really happening in the College Board's revision of the SAT is that the test is being wrenched into alignment with the Common Core. That phrase, "college and career readiness," is the Common Core mantra. The Common Core was vigorously promoted to the states and to the public as something that would "raise standards" in the schools by creating a nationwide framework that would lead students to "college readiness."
But alas, as the Common Core Standards emerged, it became apparent that they set a ceiling on the academic preparation of most students. Students who go through schools that follow the Common Core Standards will be ill-prepared for the rigors of college. That is, unless something can be done on the other end to ensure that colleges lower their standards. Then everything will be well.
None of this might matter if the Common Core were just a baseline and students and schools could easily move above it if they wished to. The trouble is that the Common Core has been designed to be a sticky baseline. It is hard for schools to rise above it. There are two reasons for that.
First, it uses up most of the time in a K-12 curriculum, leaving little room for anything else.
Second, the states that were leveraged into it via Obama's "Race to the Top" agreed that students who graduate from high school with a Common Core education and are admitted to public colleges and universities will automatically be entered into "credit-bearing courses." This is tricky. Essentially what it means is that public colleges will have to adjust their curricula down to the level of knowledge and skill that the Common Core mandates. And that in turn means that most schools will have little reason to offer anything beyond the Common Core, even if they can.
In this way, the Common Core floor becomes very much a ceiling too. The changes in the SAT are meant to expedite this transition.
The Common Core Connection
The life-preserver that the College Board is throwing to the Common Core is a redefinition of what it means to be "college ready." The SAT after all is a test aimed at determining who is ready for college. An SAT refurbished to match what the Common Core actually teaches instead of what colleges expect freshmen to know will go far to quiet worries that the Common Core is selling students short. If the SAT says a student is "college ready," who is to say that he is not?
The new changes in the SAT are meant first to skate around the looming problem that students educated within the framework of the Common Core would almost certainly see their performance on the old SAT plummet compared to students educated in pre-Common Core curricula. The subject can get complicated, so it is best to consider an example.
Perhaps the most vivid example of how the Common Core lowers standards and creates a situation which invites mischief with the SATs is the decision of the Common Core architects to defer teaching algebra to 9th grade. That move, along with several other pieces of the Common Core's Mathematics Standards, generally means that students in high school will not reach the level of "pre-calculus." And that in turn means that as college freshmen, they will be at least a year behind where college freshmen used to be. Instead of starting in with a freshman calculus course, they will have to start with complex numbers, trigonometric functions, conic sections, parametric equations, and the like.
Of course, lots of students who go to college today never take a calculus course and are in no way hindered if their high school math preparation stopped with binomial equations. The trouble comes with students who wish to pursue science, technology, or engineering - the "STEM" fields. College curricula generally assume that students who set out to study these fields have already reached the level of calculus.
One might think that students who have aptitudes and interests in these areas could simply leapfrog the Common Core by taking accelerated math courses in high school. Some indeed will be able to do just that. They will be students who attend prosperous schools that have the resources to work around the Common Core. Or they will be students whose parents pay for tutors or courses outside school. We can be confident that Americans will be ingenious in finding ways to circumnavigate this new roadblock. And we can count on the emergence of entrepreneurs who will serve the market for extra-curricular math instruction. There is no reason to think that MIT and Caltech will go begging for suitably prepared students. But there is reason to worry that a large percentage of bright and capable students in ordinary American schools are going to be shortchanged in math.
And while I have chosen math as the example, the Common Core is up to similar mischief in English, and the SAT is being similarly altered to match the diminished K-12 curriculum there too. Those who have followed the debate on the Common Core will have some idea of how this works out. The Common Core prizes "informational texts" above literature, and it prizes teaching students how to treat documents as "evidence" above teaching students how to search out the deeper meaning in what they read. The Common Core approaches reading and writing in a utilitarian spirit. Clearly this has some power. It fosters certain kinds of analytic skills - those that might be called forensic. But it scants the cultivation of other aspects of reading and writing, especially those that depend on analogy, implication, and aesthetic sense.
That's why the Common Core has such limited use for imaginative literature and why it so readily turns to out-of-context excerpts and uprooted fragments. Information is information; it does not much depend on a sense of the whole; nor does it depend on gathering in the unsaid background. The now infamous example of the Common Core's deracinated approach to writing is a reading of the Gettysburg Address shorn of any explanation that it was a speech commemorating a battlefield, let alone the battlefield of the decisive battle in the Civil War.
Presumably the Common Core folks will repair this particular mistake, but it is telling that it happened in the first place. And it is telling that the College Board has adopted all the same conceptual devices in the new SAT: relevant words in context, command of evidence, analyzing sources, and using fragments and excerpts of historical documents. None of these by itself should raise concern. Each is a legitimate line for testing. But note that they come unaccompanied by anything that would balance the focus on "evidence-based" inquiry with examination of other skills.
Why should a grandly announced effort to raise school standards end up lowering them instead? The answer lies in the convergence of several political forces. Politicians see a can't-lose proposition in the conceit that everyone should have the opportunity to go to college. School standards that really separated the wheat from the chaff would be unpopular. Americans today like the pretense that the only thing that holds us back is external circumstance, not natural limitation. And the academic "achievement gap" between Asians and whites on one hand and blacks and Hispanics on the other has made forthright discussion of standards extremely difficult.
For all these reasons, we Americans were in the market for a new brand of educational snake oil and the Common Core provided it. Politicians on both sides of the aisle lined up to buy franchises: Obama on the left, Jeb Bush on the right, and many more.
Now that the charm has worn off, the politicians have become hotly defensive about their support for Common Core. This isn't the place to delve into their excuses and recriminations, but it is important to remember that that rancor is the backdrop to the College Board's decision to change the SAT.
My account of what lies behind the changes differs quite a bit from what The New York Times reported. The Times story emphasized Coleman's heroic decision to take on the test preparation industry, which profits by exploiting the anxieties of students over how they will perform on the SAT. Test preparation can be expensive and thus wealthier families have an edge. According to the Times, Coleman declared, "It is time for the College Board to say in a clearer voice that the culture and practice of costly test preparation that has arisen around admissions exams drives the perception of inequality and injustice in our country."
How exactly the changes in the SAT will combat that "culture and practice" is unclear. The test preparation industry itself seemed to shrug at Coleman's oration. The Times quotes a vice president for Kaplan Test Prep saying that "Test changes always spur demand."
Coleman is far from the first to rejigger the SAT to advance a notion of equality and justice. The SAT was invented in 1926 to open the doors to college for students who were natively smart but came from unpromising backgrounds. Over the decades it became a primary tool for college admissions officers to match potential students with the level off rigor embodied in a college's curriculum. The goal was to find students who in all likelihood would succeed.
That began to change with the push for racial preferences in college admissions in the 1970s and 1980s. As colleges and universities more and more foregrounded the goal of "diversity" in admissions, the SAT began to look like an embarrassing artifact of an earlier time. It stood for established standards and evidence of intellectual reach at a time when it had become much more useful to emphasize "evolving" definitions of excellence and achievement. The new approaches emphasized cultural variety in how people think and what they think about, and the greater relevance to college work of "personal perspective" and viewpoint over mere knowledge. Likewise "experience" began to seem as valuable in a college applicant as intellectual skill.
The first real fruit of these new concerns was the "recentering" of the SAT's scoring system in the 1990s, which ballooned the scores of mediocre students and erased the differences among students at the higher end of the scale. Then, among other changes, came the elimination in 2002 of the verbal analogies portion of the tests, which jettisoned a section for the explicit reason that black students on average performed less well on it than they did on other sections. That same year the College Board removed the "asterisk" that indicated that a student had taken the test with special accommodations such as extra time.
So the attempt to use the SAT as an instrument to advance "social justice" is, in a sense, more of the same. We can expect most colleges and universities to welcome Coleman's changes in that spirit. But there are always costs, and sooner or later we will pay them. We are embarking on a great expansion of the left's long-term project of trading off our best chances to foster individual excellence for broadly-distributed access to mediocre education.
Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars. This article originally appeared in Minding the Campus.