A change is in the air
This week the College Board announced changes to the SAT. And boy, do I mean changes. The mainstays (or should I call them boogeymen) of the test—obscure vocabulary, math questions you can’t really study for, and the 25-minute essay—are going to go the way of phone booths, CD players, and the dodo bird.
On one side, we have those who are cheering. Who needs “pusillanimous,” “byzantine,” and “curmudgeonly,” when you can have “cowardly,” “complex,” and “grouchy”?! And an essay in which you can conjure examples from thin air? It smacks of intellectual fraud.
Then there is the other camp, which claims that the proposed changes signal a “dumbing down” of the supposedly intellectually diminished Twitter generation.
This latter group, perhaps justifiably, sees the College Board’s move as one motivated not by transparency and affability but by a far baser motive: money. See, the College Board has long been losing ground on its rival test, the ACT, which, as of last year, surpassed the SAT in terms of the number of test takers. And what better way to win back customers than to make the New SAT more like the ACT, or, as the College Board itself claims, more “test friendly”?
As is usually the case with such polarization, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Below, I will talk about each section that is changing, and where I, as an SAT tutor, stand.
The College Board, in an effort to win friends (or at least customers), is removing so-called obscure words from the test. Sure, these words are difficult (just crack open an SAT book), but I wouldn’t quite call these words obscure, since almost any word used on the SAT pops up relatively frequently in The New York Times. And I’m not sure where the College Board plans to draw the line on which words make the cut, but I know I’ll both rejoice (take that, “extirpate!”) and repine (I’ll miss you, “ineffable”).
I think the bigger question, however, is not just which words are going to be part of the New SAT (“empirical” and “synthesis” are two examples the College Board gives), but what the new Sentence Completion questions will look like. Many who think that the New SAT represents a “dumbing down” in the test may actually be wrong. If the New SAT—like the GRE, the exam students take to attend graduate or business school—decides to focus more on context than on knowing very difficult words, the test will actually be an improvement on what we have now.
Let me illustrate, using two examples below.
History is not kind on the _______________: little, if anything, is ever written on those who lacked the courage to speak up against injustice.
The bias for ______________ has crept into the current school of physics: superstring theory provides such an all-encompassing–yet tidy–packaging of current streams of thought that many scientists have been beguiled by the elegance of the theory into discounting the paucity of data.
Proponents of the “don’t-kill-the-big-vocab” school argue for nuance. Knowing very difficult words, they believe, corresponds to a subtler intellect. But if you look at the first sentence, which is typical of today’s level 5 SAT Sentence Completion, there really isn’t too much nuanced about it. If you know the meaning of the words—or at least the meaning of (B)—then the answer is obvious: it has to be a word meaning “lacking courage”.
The answer choices to the second sentence are all words we expect most high school students to have seen before. What makes the answer much tougher is the sentence—which is filled with plenty of nuance. Sure, there is still some vocabulary lurking about—“beguile” and “paucity” are somewhat tricky, though hardly obscure. But such a question will reward the student who understands the complex sentence structure and the way in which words function in context. The student who spends weekend evenings mugging up SAT flashcards will likely be stymied. (If you yourself are feeling stymied, the answer is (C)).
That is not to say that the SAT is changing along the lines of the second sentence. In fact, the College Board has yet to provide any example questions, so I’m limited in my conjectures. But here are the two ends of the spectrum, as far as I see it:
1) The vocabulary section of the test will not be “dumbed down,” but will rely more on complex sentence structure and less obscure words, similar to what the GRE currently does.
2) The SAT won’t make the sentences much more difficult but will cut words that aren’t that obscure. Words that are “college-y” words, such as “empiricism,” “abstract,” and “undermine,” will form a body of about 300-400 words that students are going to end up memorizing and testing centers drilling ad nauseum.
Though most high school students would probably choose the second option, since it sounds far less daunting, most educators—I presume—would favor the first option. Such a test would be a better measure of a student’s ability to navigate the difficult texts that await them in college. However, I’m not sure that’s really what the College Board is going for here. I think its major aim is to make the test more palatable for high school students, many of whom are currently opting to take the far less demanding ACT.
So once 2016 rolls around, I predict the test is going to look a lot more like the second option. And in a way this is ironic: if anything, test prep centers will be reinvigorated, pumping out new curriculum to mirror the very coachable lexicon of the 500 odd “college-level” words the SAT has in mind.
An optional essay
Since its inception in 2005, the SAT essay has been fraught with controversy. Students apparently were able to finagle a top score through a few colorful phrases and artfully deployed vocabulary. Facts weren’t just secondary to essay writing skills; they were moot. If you didn’t remember the name of Napoleon’s second in command, you could call him “Frank,” without any negative impact on your score. An MIT professor even coached his students to sputter such arrant nonsense on their ways to a perfect essay score.
To compound the embarrassment, researchers revealed that the essay score didn’t predict how well a student would actually do in college. This snafu was a big deal considering that the SAT bills itself as an accurate predictor of college success.
Instead of scrapping the entire essay—an option I’m sure floated about behind locked doors—the College Board has decided to revamp the section, focusing on factual analysis. Much like the current GRE Argument essay, the SAT essay will provide a paragraph that students have to evaluate for soundness of logic.
On one level this would be a welcome change, since it puts students on a more even writing field: they will have to effectively deal with the information in front of them, instead of whipping out canned examples or writing eloquently on their personal lives.
Yet, as my many years tutoring GRE suggest, this format is very coachable. Even if Khan Academy does a solid job on tutoring the essay, test prep centers will be hawking their services, saying they can do it better. The result: the very cookie-cutter essay the College Board was ostensibly trying to get away from. Argument essays use dry, canned lines to convey a faux academic tone, i.e., “The essay is susceptible to a number of salient criticisms.” Sure, students may get to flex their analytical muscles, but much of that may be lost under a welter of puffed up verbiage.
I may be wrong though, and the College Board won’t make the test as “coachable” this time around, hoping to avoid the same contretemps surrounding the current essay. By making the essay optional, the College Board has shifted the focus away from whether the new essay will have any predictive validity. Perhaps only those students who are excellent writers to begin with will opt in, making the essay a mere frill, incapable of separating the good writers from the not-so-good. Of course, having an optional essay—just as the ACT has—may simply be more bait to lure students back to the SAT.
There are two huge pieces of news as far as the New SAT Reading section goes. First off, students will be asked to integrate information from graphs with the reading passage (much as they are expected to do in college). Second, those obscure passages drawn from some 1960’s nature journal will be replaced with passages taken from famous historical documents: the Constitution, Martin Luther King’s speeches, and probably just about anything Gandhi ever wrote. In short, the College Board wants to use readings from the “global dialogue”—works that really matter.
Many are breathing a sigh of relief, thinking at last the test will be fair. I’m a little bit more ambivalent. For one, the SAT is already fair, even though many of us probably have vivid, and lacerating, memories of missing a question for which we were convinced that our wrong answer choice was correct. The SAT does a scrupulous job of testing questions before making them part of the official test. And every wrong answer—however tempting—is clearly wrong, once someone points it out to you.
The SAT is not trying to demoralize students, but is actually testing analytical thinking. The gist of this type of thinking, in an SAT context, is as follows: Don’t just pick an answer choice because it is right in some respects; pick an answer because all of it is valid and can be backed up by information in the passage.
Hopefully the New SAT will continue to test this distinction. As for the actual passages themselves, it looks like the reading section on the New SAT will be unlike any other reading passage a high school student has ever seen. It’s not that analytical thinking is being replaced; rather, the new reading section will be focused more on “big picture” thinking, or, as the College Board puts it, students will be asked “to demonstrate their ability to interpret, synthesize, and use evidence found in a wide range of sources. These include informational graphics and multi-paragraph passages excerpted from literature and literary nonfiction.”
Until we get any actual practice questions, it will be hard to say if these changes are for the better. However, I hope the “informational graphics” will do just what the College Board promises: reward those students who can effectively analyze and integrate many pieces of information to arrive at the best answer.
Changes to the math
Very little information has been released concerning the math. But from what I can gather, it sounds like the SAT is focusing on making the test more learnable—much like the final exam in a math class. This approach again mirrors that of the ACT so closely that I’m curious to see just how different the New SAT math is going to be from the current ACT math—if it is going to be different at all.
Overall, something will be lost with the new format. Call it “right-brained” math, which rewards seeing the big picture over merely following a recipe. Or call it IQ. Regardless, one function of the SAT was to select for a certain kind of student, one who may have been put off by the rote memorization of high school, but who just seemed to “get it,” when it came to math and logic.
In fact, the math section seems redundant. If the New SAT math is going to reward a student’s ability to study a curriculum and faithfully recapitulate the knowledge come test day, then why not just look at the scores a student received in his or her math classes?
Of course, I’m still hoping that the math section won’t change too much. Hopefully, some questions will continue to reward big picture thinking and logical shortcuts versus “plugging and chugging.”
But because the SAT seems intent on becoming the next ACT, I have a feeling that my hopes—indeed, for all the sections—may be in vain.
A brighter future?
Another—more optimistic—part of me, thinks that many have it all wrong. By focusing on how the SAT is “losing” to the ACT and needs to become more attractive to students—and how some of the proposed changes to the SAT superficially resemble the ACT—they are overlooking the long tradition the SAT has as America’s preeminent test of intellectual ability in high school students. So when all the handwringing is done, and all the jeremiads exhausted over the fact that “jeremiad” is no longer on the test, we may actually have a better SAT.