So, finally and very belatedly, The College Board organization has announced that it is thoroughly redesigning its hallmark SAT exams to try to make them more relevant to Twenty First Century reality. That redesign is long overdue -- but as an educational professional for more than five decades, I wonder if the task is even possible. Nor is there any sign that The College Board organization takes responsibility for the irrelevance of past SAT and similar exams, which have indeed led to so many poor decisions by colleges all over the nation, with resulting damage due to denial of so many college opportunities to American youth.
My most recent firsthand experience with the SAT exams came about ten years ago, when I completed an extended consultancy in New Hampshire and was considering new opportunities. One of the major national organizations which specializes in "prepping" high school juniors and seniors to take the SAT exams happened to be holding a tutor recruiting session in my area, which I attended. That session was a real eye-opener, as it focused mainly on marketing my services to prospective SAT-takers' parents by stating that their test scores would be improved thanks to my services. My message to these prospects was quite clear: I would be "teaching the test" and that was all that mattered when it came to scores on the SAT exams. Meanwhile, the organization offering this service would earn very-substantial fees for its tutors' efforts while paying those same tutors a very-minimal pittance. I told them: Thanks but No, thanks.
The full redesign of the SAT exams has yet to be presented, but the hype for that redesign is already posted on The College Board website. That hype consists of a series of assertions for which the underlying evidence is not fully documented. Reports do state that the SAT Essay will be made optional, which is unfortunate, as the essay was the only part of the SAT exams which allowed test takers to really express themselves. Most of the SATs consisted of multiple-guess questions whose answers required strategy more than real knowledge. What many of those multiple-guess questions did not require was real-life skills which had any solid predictive value as to college success or failure, not to mention success or failure after college. That is still likely to be the case with the redesigned SATs, to the extent that they are based on questions that do not specifically test and evaluate critical thinking skills of candidates.
Once upon a time, when a fraternity brother was having trouble in a particular sociology course and asked me for help, I offered some advice on multiple-guess questions which still applies today: Avoid choices using "all" or "never" as the social sciences do not have many such absolutes; avoid both the longest and shortest choices, as the correct choice is usually of average length in order not to stand out; avoid "none of the above" choices as they are used to trap the unwary; avoid "all of the above" choices which are also used to trap those unable to make fine distinctions; and similar strategies, none of which require any content knowledge. My fraternity brother hooked an extra copy of the exam and asked me to take it even though I had never taken the course; I scored a high B grade, based strictly on test strategy, not on substantive knowledge at all.
The same type of tips can be applied to at least the verbal portions of the current SAT tests, whereas the math portions are mainly a workout in abstruse material which has little application to success in college. To the extent that the SATs are being revised, they may or may not be better than the present version -- but the fact of the revision makes clear that the version used for decades is sadly deficient. The College Board should have scrapped that present version rather than merely modifying it -- this testing firm should have looked at"'best practices" elsewhere in the world and then have considered all conceivable options which might be relevant to future college performance. Now it is time for American colleges and universities to take a very hard look at the usefulness of the entire SAT approach, and its predictive value. They surely owe that thorough review to future generations of American college students.
Eugene Elander has been a progressive social and political activist for decades. As an author, he won the Young Poets Award at 16 from the Dayton Poets Guild for his poem, The Vision. He was chosen Poet Laureate of (more...)