Owner and Operator of Goetz Educational Services (www.goetzeducation.org), and Author of Essays on the Classics!, The Decline of the Epic?, and The Bubble Boys
Students: How Will You Conquer the New SAT?
The recent changes to the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), given by The College Board several times per year to high school students who wish to attend four-year universities, carry heavy implications for the students who intend to take it. These changes are scheduled to take effect in 2016, when the current crop of high school freshmen are juniors. The test is not their older siblings’ SAT, and is even farther removed from their parents’ SAT. Students and their parents should look at these changes carefully so that they know what test they are taking and are able to prepare themselves adequately.
The changes include the following:
1) The writing portion of the test is to become optional;
2) When students choose to take it, the essay they write will be one analyzing a written passage, rather than (as at present) one in which students respond to a prompt using their own experiences;
3) The reading portions will require students include ‘evidence-based’ multiple choice questions;
4) The passages students will be looking at in presumably both the reading and writing portions of the exam will be texts of special relevance to American history or science, rather than the haphazard passage selection of the present exam;
5) The vocabulary portion of the reading section will use common ones rather than ‘obscure’ ones;
6) The math section will be restricted in scope, covering algebra, data analysis, and ‘passport to advanced math’;
7) Points will no longer be subtracted for incorrect multiple-choice answers;
8) The scoring will revert to a ceiling of 1600, rather than 2400;
9) The exam will be offered in both print and digital formats.
I will start with the last point, and then go back to the beginning. The availability of a digital format for the SAT is a huge step forward and an opportunity for students to take strong advantage of. When I took the SAT in 2005, the first year of the version currently in place, my writing score was determined to a much larger degree by my poor handwriting (which can be very difficult to read, especially if I am forced to wake up very early in the morning) than by my actual writing ability. During my junior year of high school I was able to write a paper on the aesthetic theory presented in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man that my high school teacher claimed would keep a squad of graduate school professors arguing. Yet my SAT Writing score came out as a 630 both times I took the exam, so that I looked like a very average writer. This was a reflection of both the mechanics portion, which I will discuss a few paragraphs from now, and the written essay portion, on both of which my scores were average.
I was then, and am now (as can be seen from reviews of my books on Amazon), among the most gifted writers in the nation, yet the SAT as it was then constructed was unable to recognize that. The SAT looked at my writing ability in much the same light as Shakespeare critics often look at his: they claim that because his handwriting is poor he must not have been capable of writing his own plays. This fooled plenty of college admissions offices, and even several high AP Exam scores (which were taken in the afternoon or late morning) could not overcome the short-sightedness of the planners of the SAT. By the time I took the GRE, in 2012 and in digital format, a pair of essays that I felt were less than perfect got me in the 97th percentile. Thus the digital format alone proved highly beneficial to me, as it will to hundreds if not thousands of students whose handwriting leaves something to be desired.
Allowing students the choice of whether to take the writing portion is likewise highly beneficial. On one hand it allows students the opportunity to take the initiative. Students who choose to take the section should be given extra consideration by college admissions office not only because they are challenging themselves to do extra—in and of itself a skill that admissions offices often proclaim they are looking for in candidates—but also because compared to those who choose not to take it they will be forced to spend the extra hour or so on the exam itself. This means a greater challenge to their stamina, both intellectual and physical, and reflects deeper ability. One can only see whether this has the effect I am suggesting, though, after a year or two of students taking the test and applying for college admission.
Moreover the change in structure of the written essay should be cheered, though it presents significant challenges for students, especially in my home state of California. The ‘personal feelings’ approach to essays is problematic because the writer never knows who will be reading his paper, and thus who will be judging its contents. Some readers may not share the same values as the writers of the paper, and though they are instructed in how to be impartial they are never likely to get to the point where they are in fact unbiased. No matter how many times a reader is told to judge an essay on its mechanics, strength of its thesis, and organization, he is unlikely to make his decision entirely on those criteria. And while this is equally true of essays written to analyze a passage, but whereas a subjective essay will bear subjective criticism, an objective essay will tend to be judged more objectively. One either addresses a written passage effectively, or he doesn’t, and it is much easier to differentiate between the two cases and the degree towards which an essay approaches the one or the other.
Of course this requires a specific form of training. Students who enroll in a Great Books program, covering both fiction and nonfiction books, such as the one I conduct online, will be much better able to develop strong analytical skills. Most students do not read a single nonfiction book of any importance in the entire period in which they are in school. Reading and writing courses have devolved to an embarrassing degree in a very short period of time, and without making the deliberate choice to engage in an extracurricular program designed to strengthen critical thinking it is likely that this will be reflected in standardized test scores. This is especially true given the change in selection of passages by the exam. I am, for instance, teaching a course on great American nonfiction next year, which should prove of inordinate value to sophomores looking to take the writing portion of the SAT the following year as well as to juniors already taking American history. Students are not likely to be taught how to read Herbert Hoover’s American Individualism, Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery, John C. Calhoun’s Disquisition on Government, or James Watson’s The Double Helix in school, so they’d best look to programs like mine (as well as books like my Essays on the Classics! series) for help.
On the other hand there are strong reasons to avoid the writing section as well. The mechanics portion is tricky, and does not reflect current standards of writing. In fact it does not reflect past standards of writing either, and often asks students to replace poor phrases with awkward ones. In effect it does not truly measure a student’s true writing ability, which can be better reflected on college applications in other ways. A student may answer 44 questions and spend time on three extra sections for no reason other than to prove that he or she has greater intellectual stamina and is willing to go above and beyond, with no effect on college admissions, which are sketchy to begin with.
For the 52 questions on the reading portion of the exam there are similar pros and cons. The addition of questions about evidence is a welcome change for many students who feel that their true critical thinking ability is not being tested. At the same time the SAT tends to ask questions whose answers are differentiated by degree rather than kind. They ask for the ‘most likely’ thought passing through the writer’s head or the ‘most likely’ reason why a statement is made or the writer sees it as true. This is not likely to change with the addition of new categories of questioning; instead this kind of questioning may well become more prevalent.
In some cases two choices are so near in presentation that it is nearly impossible to choose with certainty which one is better. Those who have read the greatest volume will be best able to answer these questions properly, but it is still likely to be very difficult for them, and unlikely that they will be able to reduce the testing process to a science in this section as they would be able to in the mathematics or writing mechanics sections.
The elimination of ‘obscure’ words from the vocabulary parts of the reading section may prove illusory. I would suggest that this has no meaning for a 16-year-old anyways, since they are not likely to be familiar with enough words to know what is commonplace and what isn’t. Nevertheless all students should be delighted that they will not be asked for a synonym for ‘soporific’ or ‘tendentious’. Still it is worth a more specified training regimen than merely memorizing lists of words; students who read and read heavily are much more likely to build a large vocabulary which would be sufficient to nail the vocabulary questions on the SAT.
The specification of the math section of the SAT will probably benefit those who are good, but not great, at math. I must confess that I am at a loss to explain it: the math had not been particularly difficult, and relied on mostly basic geometry and algebra, requiring three or four steps for the more difficult problems. In a worst-case scenario the lower standards reflected in the new SAT math might sap the initiative of many students to succeed in math, but this seems unlikely. At best this change means that the predictive power of the test will be lowered—it will simply be more difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.
If I were a student I would have been bothered by this. I did not study at all for the test, but I got a 760 on the math, which should have been expected from someone who was taking multi-variable calculus at UCLA as a junior in high school. I would not have been happy to see students who were taking pre-calculus achieving the same score and, thus, looking to have the same ability as I had. In addition the subtraction of points for incorrect answers decreased the likelihood that someone without perfect knowledge of math would score the same as someone with perfect knowledge of the subject. Those who eliminated wrong answers and chose between two possibilities of which they could not determine which one was the true right answer in many cases got the wrong answer, and their scores went down—this served to differentiate them even further from me. It was either that or they did not attempt to answer the question and thus did not get either a credit or a debit on their raw score. Now this second category of students will answer the question, and in many cases will get the right answer. Their score will approach closer to the scores of the top students, and it will be difficult to tell who is truly the cream of the crop. It will create confusion and distort the ability of an admissions officer to assess who is benefitting from extra credit and who is really a math freak.
The difference in scoring is more difficult to analyze. It is important to remember that SAT scores are a form of information. They are used by admissions officers to assess the knowledge, skills, and abilities of the students upon whose applications they are passing judgment. In many cases standardized test scores can be used to wipe out the effects of grade inflation or grade deflation, or of teacher bias or poor grading scales. They are supposed to reflect what a student can do on an even playing field, under equal conditions, in a way that grades can never truly reflect.
The presence of three separate section scores in theory should have added to the clarity with which admissions officers could visualize the applicants whose papers were in front of them. While those who choose to take the writing section will still receive three section scores, those who choose not to take it will only have two section scores. This, again in theory, would make it difficult to reasonably assess where a student’s real ability lies.
But clarity about a student can only be obtained if the scores are truly reflective of a student’s knowledge and skills. Given what I have already mentioned about the lack of correlation between scores and ability, especially in the writing section, there is reason to believe that an admissions officer may have more clarity with only two sections than they had with three. Even this, however, is highly unlikely.
In practice the SAT has never been a very great reflection of what a student knows and what he or she can do, and it has just as often served to distort an admissions officer’s perceptions as it has to clarify them; in such a case the test proves damaging all around. Limiting the scope of the test and the weight it might carry in the college admissions process is likely to be the greatest boon to the student and the individual. It is in this light that I feel the new format of the SAT should be judged.