A defense (of sorts) of the SAT

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Somebody had to do it. Here’s a defense of sorts of the SAT, written by Patrick O’Connor, associate dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Kingswood School, and counselor educator at Oakland Community College.

 

By Patrick O’Connor

After College Board updated the SAT in 2005, critics called the test user unfriendly and irrelevant. The 2005 version continued to test students’ understanding of arcane words–like arcane. In addition, the new essay portion was ridiculed for rewarding students who wrote in ways contrary to the effective writing methods needed for college, including the use of facts the student simply made up.

This month, College Board said, fair enough. The essay is now optional, and made-up facts get no credibility. The penalty for guessing is eliminated. Uncommonly used words are out, making ignominious feeling even more ignominious. Free College Board-approved SAT test prep will be available on Khan Academy, and any student who gets an SAT fee waiver will also get waivers to pay for four college applications.

And what say the critics? These changes are only being made because the SAT is losing market share to the ACT. The changes have nothing to do with education; this is all about looking more like the ACT. And, even with the changes, the SAT is still irrelevant.

It’s absolutely true more students are taking ACT than SAT. Several states require all students to take the ACT, even if they aren’t going to college. Since that includes Michigan and Illinois, that’s a huge advantage in users; beyond that, students often tell me they find the ACT easier to understand than the SAT, so they take the test they feel is more comfortable.

If College Board is motivated by being No. 2 in the college testing market (and they haven’t said that), then second place is a plus. Competitors in any consumer-driven economy want their product to be more user-friendly for all kinds of reasons. If the changes made to the 2016 test put test takers more at ease, that could mean their scores will better reflect what they know.

This relates to the idea of SAT-ACT sameness. Past changes to SAT (originally an aptitude test) have made it a little more like the ACT (an achievement test), and these new changes are likely to make it even more so. If these changes really make them alike, fewer students will take both tests, leading to less time on testing and test prep, and more time on going to school. That’s a win.

Finally, I can’t say if the SAT is relevant or not, because I’m not a college president. Hundreds of colleges no longer require either the SAT or the ACT as part of the admissions process. These colleges concluded testing doesn’t tell them much more about a student than the grades, essays, and letters of recommendations students already submit when applying (and this study shows they’re right) — so why bother requiring the tests?

That’s great news for students applying to those colleges, but many colleges still require testing. Since that means students will still be taking the SAT, why not make it a more user-friendly exam, and give students free help to get ready for it?

I am a huge advocate of test-free admissions policies, and I truly hope this round of SAT revisions will inspire every college to conduct a data-driven review of its use of standardized tests, to see if they really add to the decision-making process. If a college makes a data-rich conclusion that standardized tests are relevant to their admissions decisions, my questions about that relevance will be directed to the college, not to the test makers.

These updates give colleges the perfect opportunity for introspection and clarification of their testing policies; they give all of us an opportunity to encourage colleges to do just that.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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Valerie Strauss · March 20, 2014

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