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Do Changes to the SAT Better Reflect the Skills Needed in Today’s World?

Concerns about Dumbing Down Reading and Writing Skills

The College Board recently announced that it will overhaul the SAT in 2016. Saying its college admission exams do not focus on the important academic skills, there will be fundamental changes in the exam including ending the longstanding penalty for guessing wrong, cutting obscure vocabulary words and making the essay optional. The latter is disturbing at a time when both college professors and recruiters are criticizing the lack of writing skills of today’s college graduates.

The president of the College Board, David Coleman, criticized his own test, the SAT, as becoming disconnected from the work of our high schools. It appears that the motivation for the change is to promote the common core standards that have been adopted by virtually all the states.  The Common Core is a set of high-quality academic standards in mathematics and English language arts/literacy (ELA). These learning goals outline what a student should know and be able to do at the end of each grade. The standards were created to ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life, regardless of where they live.

The reason for the change and problem it is trying to overcome is that for years the academic progress of our students has been stagnant, and we have lost ground to our international peers. Particularly in subjects such as math, college remediation rates have been high. One root cause has been an uneven patchwork of academic standards that vary from state to state and do not agree on what students should know and be able to do at each grade level.

One of my concerns is the common core standards may lead to “teaching to the test” rather than engaging students in a way that challenges their analytical reasoning skills. Also, making the essay optional sends the wrong signal at a time professors like myself and recruiters bemoan the loss of writing skills in today’s college students. Even a simple memo can be a challenge too great for some graduates.

While we can change the standardization measures of an exam such as the SAT, we must consider that comparability is at risk. How do we know that a graduate who scored 1,600 – a perfect score on the exam – has learned a comparable amount of knowledge and developed similar skills as someone who scored the same and graduated before the change? Maybe this is not a big deal but I am concerned about the statement by the Board that “its college admission exams do not focus on the important academic skills.” How do cutting obscure vocabulary words and making the essay optional promote academic skills when the result of these changes will be to dumb down reading skills? Someone should tell the Board that the best way to learn how to write effectively is to read a lot, pay attention to how the author constructs her sentences and vocabulary choice, and then demonstrate what you have learned by writing essays.

Writing, like most skills, are learned through practice. If you are trying to learn how to shoot foul shots in basketball you wouldn’t watch the tapes of an excellent foul shooter and then put what you have learned in practice. Instead, you would shoot 100's, maybe 1000's of foul shots. Learning is a hands-on skill and dumbing down the reading and writing skills as will be done by the College Board is disturbing.

Finally, if the College Board really wants to make the SAT more relevant it should try Computerized Adaptive Testing (CAT). These tests are used in professional licensing exams and may better prepare students for the real world than the current SAT. CAT determines the test-takers competence based on the difficulty of questions they can answer correctly, not how many questions you can answer correctly. The test adjusts to one’s skill-level and better reflects what a student can do and the critical thinking skills that are so important in today’s global economic environment.  

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on March 25, 2014