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Education Opinion

Throwing Down a Gauntlet on the SAT Overhaul

By Ilana Garon — March 27, 2014 3 min read

In recent weeks, the College Board announced some changes to the SAT, which are designed both to align the SAT with Common Core State Standards (and thus, match the content of the test more closely with day-to-day instruction kids are receiving in the classroom) and level the playing field between poorer and richer students taking the test. The first of these initiatives will result in the inclusion of at least one “founding document” on each test (such as the Bill of Rights, or letters by Martin Luther King, Jr.), and of questions using more science course-based words (such as “synthesis”) in lieu of the more esoteric ones (“depreciatory”) that plague students studying for the current test.

The latter initiative--the seemingly intractable socio-economic achievement gap--will be dealt with through a combination of fee waivers for high-achieving, poor students, as well as free online SAT prep through a partnership with Khan Academy, an alternative to expensive private tutoring that is now the norm in upper-middle class and upper-class circles.

To all of this, I want to say, “That’s nice. Good effort. But seriously, who cares?” It’s not that I think the content of the SAT shouldn’t be more connected with course-work (it totally should), or that more efforts shouldn’t be made to connect bright, poor kids with colleges (again, of course they should). My quip is that, as more and more colleges make the SAT an “optional” part of the application process, and yet continue to get applicants of no lesser quality (and in some cases, better quality) than when the SAT was mandatory, the whole thing just seems pretty unnecessary.

By what cosmic law does the SAT have to remain the gatekeeper of college admissions? Wouldn’t the simplest thing to do, rather than go to all these efforts to mitigate the SAT’s irrelevance to coursework and pernicious impact on poor college applicants (because family income remains stubbornly correlated with SAT scores), be to eliminate the SAT altogether?

My students tend to do very poorly on the SAT; even the best ones, with terrific grades and a strong sense of work ethic, are stymied by the test, rarely breaking 600 in any given section (and, as a result, keeping themselves out of contention for spots at top colleges). There are so many possible explanations for this, to which I could devote an entire blog entry (and probably have). Some of their most prevalent issues include English language comprehension problems (particularly for students who have recently immigrated to the US, yet undertook rigorous courses in their native countries, and would be well-equipped to attend college here), difficulty reading long passages in a time-crunch, and struggles to decipher the ambiguously worded questions (in every section) for which the test is most infamous.

Yet, these are students who, working at their own pace and on their own terms, have succeeded in challenging courses in their home countries and all through school. They can hold their own in classes, and gain the endorsement of their teachers, yet the SAT keeps them back, because it is really geared towards students who have grown up reading and speaking English, regularly and fluently, from a young age--something not all of my students have.

So, I throw down this gauntlet: Why don’t we get rid of the SAT altogether? Surely there are other measures by which college applicants can be evaluated (albeit not as quickly, but then, there’s got to be some reason each of these schools requires supplemental essays to the Common Application--time to actually read them!) which will yield more useful predictive information about a student’s chance of success at a given school. Sure, a multi-billion dollar cottage industry of test preparation (let alone, the College Board itself) will be adversely affected. But we’ll have gone further towards closing the socio-economic divide in college applications and admission when superficial, empirically classist, and “noise"-ridden mechanisms for evaluation cease to be the norm.

The opinions expressed in View From the Bronx: An Urban Teacher’s Perspective are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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