Commentary & Opinion
3:50 pm
Thu March 20, 2014

Karen Hitchcock: The “New” SAT - Meaningful Improvement or “More of the Same”

Over the last several weeks, the media has been filled with news of the revised SAT to be implemented in the spring of 2016 by the College Board. Championed by the relatively new President of the College Board, David Coleman, this newly-conceived SAT has received praise as well as criticism in terms of content, design and potential impact on college admissions.

Todd Balf, in an extensive article in The New York Times entitled, “The Story Behind the SAT Overhaul,” sets out Mr. Coleman’s goals for the new exam. In short, Mr. Coleman wants to better align the SAT with high school curricula; and, he wants low-income students to have access to preparatory courses and materials comparable to mid- and high-income students. Further, he wants to find ways to increase the application rate of talented, low-income students to the more select colleges and universities.

As documented in a recent article by Tamar Lewin in The New York Times, major changes in the SAT  will include, among others: a vocabulary section focused on words frequently encountered in college coursework (like, empirical), versus the more arcane (like, obfuscate); the essay will become optional and will focus on reasoning and evidence-based analysis;  math questions will focus on linear equations, complex equations or functions, and ratios, percentages and proportional reasoning; and, all exams will include readings from one of our country’s “founding documents” like the Constitution, or from written discussions of such documents. Throughout, the emphasis will be on “evidence-based reading and writing,” and questions will be more closely aligned with courses the student has encountered in high school. Vocabulary will be tested in ways which emphasize context and a word’s importance to future learning experiences.

Mr. Coleman’s clearly stated goal to better align the content of the new SAT with high school curricula takes on particular significance given his own extensive work on the Common Core as a member of a nonprofit group known as Student Achievement Partners. The Common Core, now adopted in over 40 states, represents a set of curriculum standards believed by many to reflect the kinds of knowledge and learning experiences which will better prepare our young people for success in college and beyond. It is not surprising that Mr. Coleman would strive to align the SAT with these new high school curriculum standards which he helped develop and strongly supports.

Critics of this new iteration of the SAT feel that it has been “dumbed down.” They resent the movement toward what they see as an easier, less discriminating test of vocabulary, and see the decision to make the essay optional in the same light. In fact, some have rather cynically interpreted these changes as a way for the College Board to regain market share from the other major postsecondary standardized test, the A.C.T., long seen as being linked more closely to high school curricula than the “old” SAT.

Personally, I view a move towards examining a student’s ability to think critically and utilize evidence to ground their analyses and arguments as a positive step. Understanding a word’s meaning relevant to its context is also an important advance which I heartily applaud. Now, if we could only do something about grammar: my long-time favorite error – between you and “I” versus “me”; and, my new favorite, he should have “went”, versus, “gone”, or, I would have “came” versus “come”. Hearing such blatant errors, even from those in the media, is certainly disheartening. But, I digress …..

I do think, criticisms notwithstanding, that the new focus of the SAT is a positive one and does not represent a “dumbing down” of the test feared by some. I also applaud Mr. Coleman’s decision to provide, in partnership with the Khan Academy, a free online tutoring service, SAT preparatory courses to all who wish them, an initiative he hopes will alleviate some of the current performance disparities between low- and high-income students. The College Board will also be providing admission fee waivers to all financially-eligible students, hoping to increase the numbers of low-income students applying to the more selective colleges.

While only time will tell if the new SAT is a better predictive instrument than the current standardized tests, and only time will tell if the College Board’s initiatives to help equalize access to test prep will enhance the performance of low-income students,  this new approach to the SAT is certainly worth the kind of in-depth, evidence-based analysis the test itself will soon stress. That kind of dispassionate, objective analysis is long overdue and can only help us as we seek to design useful, and valid, testing instruments.

Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served  on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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