Monday, March 07, 2005

Cosmetic Changes Make the New SAT

Sunday's Outlook section of the Washington Post contained the must-read article "New SAT? We Know the Score" by Patrick Welsh.

I'm a freshman at the University of Maryland now, so these changes come too late to affect me. But having been through the gauntlet before, I've been following with interest the attempt to revise a sacrosanct part of the college admissions process. Initially, I welcomed the idea of updating what seems to everyone an old-fashioned test that wasn't really successful at guaging academic ability. Welsh refered to University of California President Richard Atkinson's 2001 speech recommending that his school system drop the SAT as an admission requirement. That suggestion drew shockwaves--but Atkinson was right on when he described the "overemphasis of the SAT".

The SAT is a test designed to measure instrinsic aptitude and thus is supposedly a good predictor of a student's ability to succeed in college. But really, most high school juniors and seniors can tell you that success on the SAT is directly related to test-taking skills, not academic ability. This isn't an assertion coming from someone embittered by their experience--I offer my own SAT experience as an example.

In my junior year of high school, I took the test with a minimal level of preparation, figuring that I had a high level of ability in English and Math. I came out with a score of 1460, a very impressive performance by any standard, but actually among the lower-end range of students in my hyper-competitive high school. I took the test again the next year, and without the aid of any new math or English classes relevant to the test, I improved my score to 1560. This time around though, I prepared by becoming intimately familiar with the test and its structure, through the aid of the uber-helpful "10 Real SATs" and other practice tests on CD. Anyone can experience significant improvement in their SAT score thru mindless, repetitve preparation. It's no small wonder that the Kaplan and Princeton Review and Co. all make a fortune off of their test preparation courses, which can be a big benefit to those who can afford their steep cost.

That said, I was hoping the new SAT would bring the change Mr. Atkinson said was "long overdue". But like Mr. Welsh, I'm not impressed with the largely cosmetic changes that have been made. The famous analogy questions were removed to transform the "Verbal" section into "Critical Reading" only. Quantitative comparison questions were eliminated from the Math section and Algebra II material was added. The biggest change however, is the addition of a "Writing" section to the test, a 25-minute essay followed by multiple choice questions on grammar and syntax. If this sounds exactly like the existing SAT II: Writing test, you're right. It appears the College Board has pretty much appended that test to make the SAT even more bloated.

I'm not quite sure what is the purpose of adding the writing section to the SAT. In the past, colleges that wanted to look at that aspect of a student's ability would require the SAT II writing test--but Welsh points out that it is hardly a universal requirement. Had I been around late enough to take the new SAT, I'm guessing from my 800 score on the SAT:II Writing that I would probably have benefited from the changes. But I still feel it's a bad idea, namely because it introduces too arbitrary an element into the equation.
"By increasing the size of his handwriting, Luo was able to stretch a one-page essay into a two-page essay, creating the impression of a student with plenty to say. He also made sure to sprinkle his draft with such words as "equivocal" and "esoteric," conveying the sense of a sophisticated vocabulary."

The grading system as Welsh described is atrocious, especially prone to subjectivity. The writing section has always been hit or miss, especially with regards to the topics assigned. While I was writing this post, my roommate recalled his experience having to write an essay comparing "style vs. substance". I've had friends with even more frustrating stories.

But my biggest complaint, personally, is that the format of the essay in the new section is yet another encroachment of the cookie-cutter writing standard that is already too prevalent in public education. Think five paragraphs (intro, three body, conclusion). Body paragraphs must have topic sentence in predictable location. Clearly defined thesis, stated in the first paragraph, restated in last paragraph. If on the surface that sounds like teaching kids good writing, believe me, it's not. Years of suffering through my county's rigid adherence to the formula for writing essays--or "Extended Constructed Responses" as the school board's technocrats had us call them--showed me how woefully ineffective the technique was at teaching good writing.

It's hard for students to show creative thought when they're hamstrung by the rigid mentality that grades them--emphasizing adherence to a standardized grading rubric (easier for teachers to grade) rather than a focus on content and strength of argument. Now it seems that the very practice I decried during my years in secondary education have received a seal of approval from the ultimate authority of the College Board. Might as well codify their approach into law, because which teacher is going to teach otherwise when the SAT asks differently? None, unfortunately, and the result will be telling.

Still, despite everything, I know it won't be long before everyone gets used to the new SAT, and life (or at least the college admissions process) returns to normal. I never thought that the old SAT was fundamentally flawed, just that it had its weaknesses. The SAT has long been a useful standardized method of evaluating students--the only problem is that its results have become too overvalued. I was hoping to see greater reform than was taken by the College Board in producing the new version of the exam. but nonetheless I can't imagine a future without it. So while there may be no more "sanguine:optimism :: tenacious:persistence", teen angst, parental pressure, and prep books remain very much a part of the new SAT!

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