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Using the new #SAT to Sort Students, We Haven’t Progressed Very Far!

November 1, 2015

new SAT.001

In today’s New York Times Education Life section, there is an article titled, Everything You Need to Know About the New SAT.  After reading the piece I was left feeling quite sad about the state of education and assessment in the United States.  It’s clear to me that our antiquated assessment practices are a reflection of our fear and inability to reconcile a traditional education system that does not serve all students.  Here are a series of quote from the article written by Eric Hoover, a senior writer covering admissions at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

the questions are more relevant and less gimmicky

That seems to me to be a productive change.  School should not be about gimmicks, it should be about learning important, meaningful and relevant ideas and concepts.  School will only be engaging to students if they are interested in what they are learning.  Otherwise, it is a required chore to complete and only those that are compliant are masters of the current system.

others foresee problems, especially for those who struggle with reading

Since students are reading less and less every day, this could be a problem.  See the article in Time Magazine, Number of Students Reading for Fun Keeps Declining.  This is particularly a challenge in a society that values “screen time” more than it does book time.  The Nation’s Report Card suggests that our students are not prepared.  “The government released the latest national test scores on Wednesday, and the news isn’t good: 12th-graders are headed toward graduation, but many don’t have the skills they need to succeed in college or work.”  More importantly: “It measured reading and math skills of 92,000 high school seniors in 2013 and found that reading skills of those 12th-graders have gone unchanged since the last time the test was given, in 2009, and they’re lower than those of students in 1992.”  Not a good sign for students being prepared to take the new SAT.

if you haven’t gone to a school that prepared you well, the test isn’t going to serve you well.

Isn’t this a problem for many students in the United States.  Some studies and reports say that between 10-15% of schools in the US are failing (click here).

test-taking savvy is still going to make a big difference when students pick up the No. 2 pencil

This no doubt will favor students whose parents can afford to spend enormous sums of money getting outside tutors and using test preparation companies to boost their child’s chances of doing well.

how should students prepare?  By reading often and diving into various kinds of texts, especially nonfiction.

Seems to me this will require schools to rethink the focus of their academic program so that students read a more nonfiction.  Most schools language arts programs focus on reading fiction, while most science and social studies curricula use textbooks that are generally not interesting to read.

…writing section, which will demand prolonged concentration.

Do schools teach their students to engage in prolonged concentration?  Are we helping students develop the skills of patience, perseverance, and fortitude?  Finally, do we structure school so that students can practice these skills?  Take a close look at the typical day of a high school student and I think the answer to this question is probably not.

to answer questions about grammar, punctuation and usage, students will have to wade through extended passages relating to history, humanities, and science.

Interesting that one of the most high-stakes assessments in the United States will use history, humanities and science passages to answer questions about grammar, punctuation and usage.  Doesn’t this diminish the value of understanding concepts in these disciplines because of their inherent interest, and using one’s understanding of them to solve interesting and complex questions or challenges?  Strikes me that is a waste of valuable knowledge!

The most fundamental change is that there are many, many more words.  If you don’t read well and happily, this test isn’t going to be your friend.

What a sad statement!  Many students in the United States don’t read well or happily, even those from wealthy backgrounds.  Our societal values are part of the problem.  We have lots to change if we expect students to be reading well and happily.  Get rid of the TV.

some questions will require knowledge of statistics, a course relatively few students take in high school.

Great, a test that expects students to know something they don’t experience in school.  Who was behind that decision?  Again, we should be rethinking our school curricula before we design a high-stakes test.  Test design shouldn’t come before rethinking and redesigning our traditional programs that might be out-of-date.  I think statistics is important, but then let’s teach it first to build capacity before we assess students.

questions throughout will require students to cite specific examples that support their answers.  No longer can they get by on writing skills alone.

OK!  I think citing the text for examples to support a point-of-view is important.  However, so is demonstrating that you have good writing skills, especially in a creative way.

At 3 hours and 50 minutes the SAT is a still long, exhausting test.  Besides measuring what students have learned it will measure how they perform under pressure in a high-stakes situation–just like the old model.

A good assessment is one that measures what students know and can do, regardless of how long it takes them.  Most important things that have been discovered or learned have not been achieved under pressure in a high-stakes situation.   There may be examples like the invention of the atomic bomb that were discovered under pressure and in a high-stakes environment, but that’s the exception rather than the rule.  Placing value on performing under pressure only favors a specific kind of learner.  We know so much more about the neuroscience of learning than 25 years ago.  Why not use that knowledge to design an assessment that really shows what student know and can do or what they have mastered?

Mr. Ingersoll (founder of a CA test prep company) spotted the same “trap doors”–questions designed to distract or confuse and to enhance the test’s difficulty–that he finds in the current version.

How absurd to have “trap doors?”  I didn’t realize that teaching and learning was about distracting and confusing students.  All the excellent teachers I know, and there are many of them, are not interested in distracting and confusing their students.  They are interested in defining the learning targets they want students to hit and helping them learn the skills that it takes to hit the target.

colleges use the SAT to sort applicants.

What an antiquated use of an assessment!  Assessments should be used to measure what students know and can do.  In fact, our goal should be for all students to get an 800.  The day that all students in the United States master their learning environment in such a way that they achieve an 800 on a high-quality assessment is the day that we have reformed our educational system.  Of course, this will be an assessment very different from the new SAT.

you can’t have all students scoring a 750…it needs to be a benchmark of student achievement, but that is at odds with selective colleges’ need to have a test that sorts and ranks.  These quirks and trap doors make the test perform the way it needs to.

What is achieved by sorting and ranking students?  We promote a culture of haves and have-nots.  We promote a culture in which many students have a fixed mindset.  It certainly does not promote a growth mindset.

some expect the new SAT will be even more challenging for the disadvantaged.  …the test would seem to best serve students at high-performing schools, with the strong teachers who prepare them for state standards, as well as affluent students with access to test prep.

So the new SAT will further divide our country into families who can afford to buy a “good education” and those who are marginalized into schools that cannot afford to provide a “good education.”  It’s all about what you can afford because we know our politicians have not demonstrated the resolve to eliminate the complex problems that befall families relegated to schools that are fighting an uphill battle.  Where is John Dewey’s democracy of education?

it’s going to generate the same hierarchy of scores that exists now.

Then it’s not a “new SAT!”

Why do we redesign a high-stakes assessment that students have to take for college admission before redesigning the schools that are supposed to meet the needs of all students?  It doesn’t make any sense.

If we want the new SAT to measure things we value, we need to start with what we value in education.  What are the enduring learnings that all students should achieve from their schooling?  It won’t only be defined by what is in the Common Core or what is on the new SAT test.

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