Meet the new test

March 20, 2014

An employee of a private test preparation company explains what's new--and what's not--about the new Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).

THE COLLEGE Board recently announced dramatic changes to the SAT. In an effort to make the country's most [in]famous test more "focused and useful," the profitable non-profit will align the test more closely with public school curriculums, which have themselves been recently overhauled by the implementation in most states of the Common Core.

By no coincidence, the Common Core and the new SAT are each the brainchild of College Board President David Coleman. Like the Common Core, the new SAT seeks to eliminate material that is superfluous to what Coleman considers to be the essence of education: job skills training.

For the SAT, this means stripping the test of educational fads like abstract mathematical concepts and vocabulary words "that are sometimes obscure and not widely used in college and career."

For future SAT takers, these changes will hopefully be an improvement to a test that helps to determine their futures and yet is based on discredited pedagogical theories from the distant past. (No such luck, however, for students taking the SAT this year and next. It's not a good feeling to find out even the people who make the damned test don't think it's useful.)

David Coleman
David Coleman

But as a reflection of how our society values education, the new SAT is another step toward the restructuring kindergarten through college into a 16-year unpaid internship program for Corporate America, which has never placed a high value on critical thinking and intellectual curiosity as workforce skills.

THE REVISED SAT is less a new direction for the test and more an attempt by the College Board to reclaim its traditional role as the arbiter of the country's so-called meritocracy.

The SAT was first used in college admissions in 1934, when Harvard President James Conant wanted a tool to find intelligent young men from outside the university's elite private school recruiting pool.

Whether he was aware of it or not, Conant had sharp political timing; it was a decade of widespread resentment against the elites who had dragged the country into the horrors of the Great Depression and, before that, the First World War.

Using the SAT allowed Harvard to claim that it was not merely a club for rich Protestant boys but the home of the country's best and brightest--the vast majority of whom would still just happen to be rich Protestant boys for many decades.

Within a few years, the rest of the Ivy League had adopted the SAT, and from there it spread throughout academia.

Higher education has changed dramatically in the U.S. since 1934, but the SATs haven't. Eighty years ago, when college was almost exclusively for the wealthy, the SAT was a tool to pluck the most gifted among the masses and to place them into the ranks of the elite.

Like the IQ test, the SAT was both culturally biased and based on the notion of innate intelligence; it was designed to weed out the unworthy through confusingly worded questions and obscure vocabulary.

Today, the idea of innate intelligence is widely discredited and the role of higher education has changed. College is for the masses, even though graduating and getting a decent job are not.

The SAT is now used as a ranking system for a much wider layer of the population to determine which colleges they will go to and what type of aid they will receive. And so the test's archaic design no longer makes sense.

Furthermore, as the competition for competitive colleges and financial aid packages has heated up, so has the use of private test preparation companies (like the one I work for), which of course are accessed to differing degrees depending on how much money one has.

The SAT has gone from being a supposed remedy for economic inequality to a symbol of it.

ENTER DAVID Coleman, a latter day James Conant for a new generation feeling increasingly resentful of a plutocracy that has driven us into a devastating economic crisis and a horrible war (okay, two wars this time.)

A generation that once again needs a new SAT to prove that the system is not rigged, that meritocracy still exists in higher education. Coleman promises that the changes to the SAT will reduce the advantages gained by test preparation services:

It is time for the College Board to say in a clear voice that the culture and practice of test preparation that now surrounds admissions exams drives the perception of inequality and injustice in our country.

It's a bit odd to hear this from the architect of the Common Core, which has turned schools across the country into test prep factories--and increased the inequities between among students based on who can afford paid tutoring.

What upsets David Coleman is not the culture of test preparation but rather the squandering of precious test preparation on a test that isn't training students to be "college and career ready."

I have nothing against tests, which can be a useful way to engage higher level thinking and generate discussion and debate. In fact, here are a few sample questions.

Reading comprehension
When David Coleman says that the problem with the rise of test preparation companies is that it "drives the perception of inequality and injustice in our country," his use of the word perception shows that he believes:

a) Inequality and injustice don't actually exist.

b) Of course they exist, but the problem is that more people are noticing.

c) In a country with billionaire bailed-out bankers and homeless full-time workers, it's test prep companies that are the main factor driving the perception of inequality and injustice.

David Coleman joked to a reporter about how his bachelor's in philosophy at Yale, his bachelor's in English literature at Oxford and a master's in ancient philosophy at Cambridge are "three degrees that entitled you to zero jobs." Since Coleman's Common Core curriculum all about "career readiness," is this an example of irony?

a) No, because irony involves something unexpected, and by now we've come to expect that the people making education policy have no background in education and don't even pretend to think that their education reforms actually apply to themselves and their private school children.

b) Yes, because it's ironic that someone calling himself a journalist didn't ask a follow up question.

c) Irrelevant, because irony is not a concept that makes you more college and career ready.


Let y = years spent in school; d = dollars spent on tuition, test prep companies and student debt; and s = the soul-crushing boredom of receiving an education that reduces intellectual and social growth to a test score.

If a student's probability of getting a well-paying and fulfilling job after graduating college is approximately one in a million, then how many years will it take for y + d + s to equal revolution?

WE'LL END our test with an essay question. The College Board added these in 2005, in response to complaints from universities that incoming students had poor writing skills.

It has been a failed experiment, not because there is anything wrong with essays but because they do not fit well into the College Board's outsourced assembly-line system of test scoring. The essay has been widely criticized for being scored on superficial criteria like length and the use of fancy vocabulary.

In response, the College Board is replacing the open-ended essay with a document-based response that will present test scorers with a more clear-cut rubric. In other words, for all his talk about college readiness, David Coleman is dropping a fundamental college skill because it doesn't fit the College Board's business model.

Here's my essay question: What is the point of education?

I like the way Jim Martinez approaches this topic in an article about the Common Core:

If we believe in an educational system that prioritizes knowledge acquisition in the service of a national security agenda (economic competitiveness, technology dominance, etc.) then testing is necessary.

We experience the consequences of this priority in classrooms every day. I don't have to detail them here.

If we believe that education is about more than knowledge acquisition, and that national security can be achieved through other concepts such as healthy communities, sustainable resource uses, national unity, world peace or the elimination of hunger and poverty, then we need to take responsibility for our practices, assert our own understandings of those practices, expose those practices to peer-review and challenge "what does not make sense" collectively.

David Coleman, on the other hand, probably considers this question to be a waste of time. But I don't think we should consider the man who has turned American childhood and adolescence into one long block of test preparation to be qualified to determine what is a waste of time.

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