That Crazy, Mixed-up SAT!

Crabby gets testy…

Holy heaving Jeebus, the College Board has decided to change the SAT again! Well, that’s just great. This time around it seems like they’re playing a drunken game of Mr. Potatohead, with the nose going in an earhole and the mouth where an eye should be. The SAT just looks raggedy now, not all high-tech streamlined and elegant and “we know what’s good for you better than you do”-ish.

There’s no point in his bashing the silly thing any more, so Crabby will just refer readers to a passionate article by Bard’s no-BS president, Leon Botstein, referring to the thing as “part hoax, part fraud.” There are others, but if you’ve read one critique, you’ve read them all, really, over the past 20 years. In our reality-challenged world, fact-based evidence pointing out the SAT’s minimal predictive value, strong correlation of success to income, and so on seem to make little difference: it still, along with the ACT (which somehow seems more benign, perhaps because it’s HQ is in Iowa–much nicer people in the Midwest) something that strikes fear into everyone’s hearts.

Crabby is happy to be one of the “We told you so” chorus who mocked the essay part of the test, introduced in 2005 and now being substantially revised and made optional. So soon gone? It was a miserable thing and good riddance. But the rest is still a mess and will soon be even more simple-minded than before, with fewer “hard” words and more sanded down math. If it’s true that minimums soon become maximums, look for the SAT to further contribute to the dumbing-down of high school curricula. Why learn “hard” words when they won’t be on the SAT? Since no one reads “hard” books anymore, what’s the point? (This isn’t just Crabby complaining, it’s happening, with “Hunger Games” replacing “Hamlet” in the Chicago area.)

Some say the College Board is trying to catch the ACT, which seems now to be more popular and is more closely aligned to the (presumed-common, although perhaps not yet Common Core) curriculum. Fine and dandy. But it still won’t be a better tool than it is now, will it? Despite the oh-so-magnanimous gesture of offering the poor free test prep (when it could easily afford to fund actual teaching, really) and a whopping four fee waivers (wow!), the College Board is really just rearranging Mr. P’s face. (And while we’re at it, what’s with giving a test AND providing ways to beat it?)

Who will rise in protest like the families here in Chicago who are actually breaking the law by keeping their children from taking the ISAT, one of the many standardized tests mandated by the state of Illinois? Of course high school students don’t have to take the SAT or the ACT, but they kind of do if they want access to you-know-where. Here parents have finally had enough. Is resistance futile? Did you know standardized testing, and lots of it, is actually written into law? Can you imagine moms in jail for, what, test-resistance?

Crabby and others have pointed out that in the race to gain points on these tests, schools have substituted school-time test prep for genuine academic subjects, drilling for thinking, and regimentation for discussion. But it doesn’t seem to have had any effect on the massive testing-industrial complex. Although a growing number of colleges have gone “test optional” in admission, the tests still are seen as a major criterion by the public and particularly by charter schools who want to show they’re not phonies, even though high school GPA consistently ranks as #1 when admission officers are surveyed about the most important part of an application.

So Crabby suggests that colleges think this way: Your reliance on the SAT/ACT actually is hollowing out of the very academic characteristics you think are being measured by the SAT/ACT. Of course, well-off kids are still going to have plenty of access to great schooling and teachers, but even they, along with their poorer peers, are drowning in test prep, not getting an in-depth education. Increasingly, students bring to college the ability to psych out exams and strategize about how to get the most points, but not the ability or desire to learn something. Because after all, that’s not what high school’s about. We say they’ll never see a test like it again, but the hours of drilling inculcate (a word probably no longer to be used on the SAT) a very different idea about what learning is.

Colleges, you get what you ask for. There’s very little to be done from the ground up on this one unless the nation follows the lead of Chicago parents; the SAT/ACT has to be truly challenged from your side. If you come to your senses and realize that test scores are being gotten at the price of educational integrity, maybe you’ll think about truly revising admission procedures in ways that support real academic work, not some jumbled plastic simulacrum thereof.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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One Response to That Crazy, Mixed-up SAT!

  1. mwhumbach says:

    You nailed it, Crabby. Until colleges and universities take a stand against the SAT and what a waste it is, it’s doubtful things will change.

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