An Exercise in Critical Reading: Why the SAT Will Change in 2016

Please read the following post carefully, as you would an SAT passage.  Critical reading questions — consistent with those found on the current SAT — will follow!

 

In his speech March 5 announcing an overhaul of the current SAT, College Board President David Coleman owned up to criticism that the current SAT reinforces socio-economic inequality because the wealthy have greater access to quality test prep than the poor.  He also conceded that the current SAT is out of touch with today’s middle and high school curricula and explained that the new test would better reflect what students learn in class.  According to Coleman, these changes represent the “College Board’s renewed commitment to delivering opportunity.”

The last changes took place in 2005 when the College Board altered the test from a 1600-point to a 2400-point test by including an entirely new section, the writing section, comprised of a 25-minute essay and 35-minutes worth of questions on grammar and usage.  Today, the writing section has taken the most heat, including from Coleman himself, who says that the essay portion fails to test useful skills.  And this is where the irony begins: College Board was saying the exact same thing about the old 1600-point test in 2005 when it eliminated analogies and introduced the writing section in the first place.

The irony continues when you take a closer look at what the College Board really is—a monopoly.  Whereas the ACT may be attracting more test takers recently, the College Board has cornered the market on SAT Subject Tests, AP tests, and the lesser known CLEP tests, which are subject-specific standardized tests administered at more than 1,700 colleges and universities nationwide.  In fact, AP testing alone accounted for more than half of the College Board’s hundreds of millions in revenue back in 2012, whose share,because of College Board’s lobbying efforts, has likely increased since then.  In other words, due to its breadth of standardized test offerings, the College Board is a very profitable nonprofit.

So why change the test?  After all, doing so is expensive, and, like many businesses, the College Board loves cutting costs when it can.  (In 2007, for example, the public finally discovered that the College Board recycles questions and even entire tests because of the expense of creating completely new ones.)  Well, just as in 2001 when the University of California system was considering opting out of the SAT requirement entirely, the SAT is again under threat.  After a slew of small liberal arts colleges went “test-optional,” Wake Forest became the first top-30 university to follow suit.  More recently, a study published last month examined the difference in collegiate performance between those who submitted scores and those who didn’t at test-optional schools.  The study found a negligible difference in average GPAs between the two groups.

Backed into a corner about the waning legitimacy of a product so closely tied with its brand, the College Board hired as president David Coleman, a man who was previously the major architect of the Common Core curriculum.  For educators, this event might feel somewhat dystopian: one man is not only controlling what children learn in class but is also helping an organization turn a massive profit by testing the same material.   Good thing “[Coleman’s] heart is in the right place,” as MIT professor and SAT critic Les Perelman told The New York Times.

While announcing the SAT changes, Coleman proclaimed with a smile, “This is a sad day for test prep companies,” implying that the new test would be more difficult to coach, or professional test prep would be rendered useless because of the free tutorials that the College Board’s new partner, Khan Academy, would offer online.  The underlying assumption in his statement, of course, is that all test prep is the same, that it relies solely on teaching students test-taking “tricks.”  Any company that takes results seriously knows this is far from the truth.  Personally, I spend more time identifying and filling in the gaps in students’ knowledge and then I focus on fine-tuning their analytical abilities before even diving into the strategies that I, like others, have accumulated by studying the test for years.

And that’s the thing about standardized testing: it’s standardized, meaning certain patterns will underlie each test so that scores fall into reliable ranges that colleges can count on to tell them something about applicants AND bright, motivated tutors can pick apart to help students perform better on the test.

The only statement made by Coleman that I would resoundingly agree with is that, aside from the essay, the current test, although socially unfair, is a decent test.  Many questions on both the critical reading and math sections, for example, test a student’s ability to translate something concrete into an abstract idea or vice versa.  Other questions test a student’s understanding of how an author constructs an argument and its rhetorical effect.  Even the arcane vocabulary in sentence completions isn’t so bad: it tests the capacity to break down words into roots and prefixes — the building blocks of the English language — and then use these limited tools to make educated guesses.  To me, these skills are important, and students scoring at the highest levels on the SAT truly have a greater capacity to solve problems creatively and distill information to its bare essentials.

Perhaps the SAT isn’t reinforcing inequality so much as it is highlighting it.  The simple fact is that there is a gross disparity in the educational systems across the country, which makes standardized testing an easy way for colleges to differentiate thousands of applicants from different high schools with similar GPAs.  A lasting way to level the playing field would be to invest more in teachers on a massive scale, pay them competitive wages so the brightest and most innovative would enter the profession, and give them the freedom to circumvent this stunting standardization of education that’s going on today.  Until then, test prep tutors will continue to push students past what they think they’re capable of within the confines of a standardized testregardless of how much the SAT may change.

1]  In the context of the passage, the author’s attitude toward the quote at the end of the first paragraph (“College…opportunity”) could best be described as:

A)     Emphatic

B)     Appreciative

C)     Caustic

D)    Critical

E)     Skeptical

2]  The second sentence of the third paragraph (“Whereas…nationwide”) serves to:

A)     Dispel a misconception

B)     Reinforce a claim

C)     Provide a rationale

D)    Disprove a theory

E)     Define a term

3]  In paragraphs 3-5, the author uses all of the following rhetorical strategies, EXCEPT:

A)     Euphemism

B)     Sarcasm

C)     Rhetorical questioning

D)    Paradox

E)     Irony

4]  The second and third sentences of the fifth paragraph (“For…Times”) refer to the idea that:

A)     Too much power vested in one individual is dangerous

B)     Education is more efficient when standardized

C)     Only those with good intentions are worthy of authority

D)    Educators focus too much on dystopian societies

E)     Good intentions should be met with higher profits

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