February 27, 2013

This is the only math you will ever require.

They’re updating the SAT, again. First we lost the analogies, now this! It’s been only eight years since the last Vast Alteration. At the rate we’re going, we won’t know what any of the scores mean. “2400? That’s terrible! It’s out of 8000 now, to prepare students for a workforce in which all their accomplishments are meaningless.”

College Board president David Coleman, as Valerie Strauss reported, e-mailed the 6,000 members of the board saying that MASSIVE RADICAL CHANGES to the iconic test were in order. The e-mail read, in part: “In the months ahead, the College Board will begin an effort in collaboration with its membership to redesign the SAT® so that it better meets the needs of students, schools, and colleges at all levels. We will develop an assessment that mirrors the work that students will do in college so that they will practice the work they need to do to complete college. An improved SAT will strongly focus on the core knowledge and skills that evidence shows are most important to prepare students for the rigors of college and career.”

This sounds, frankly, less rigorous. Has anyone been to college lately? I’m assuming the new SAT consists of someone handing you a beer bottle and a lighter and waiting for you to use the latter to open the former, giving you the opportunity to stand there straining and saying, “No, I’ve got this. I’ve got this,” for about 20 minutes. Then it turns out that it is a twist-off cap.

Or you could test your ability to sleep in until 11 at a minimum, 3 if you’re really ambitious, on every day but Tuesday and alternate Thursdays.

If you really wanted to test people’s college aptitude, you would prevent them from reading any of the reading comprehension passages and have them select remarks to make during the class discussion, based on flipping randomly to a passage and over-interpreting it. After the excerpt, the multiple-choice questions would read

A) “This reminds me of Nietzsche.”

B) “Well, really what this is about, is microaggression.”

C) “I just don’t understand how we can sit here reading this as though he meant any of these words seriously.”

D) “Didn’t Virgil do this centuries ago, and better?”

E) “But who can believe anything written in 1832?”

There would be a separate SAT for students in math, science and engineering, naturally, that you would have to wake up early and do actual work for.

But in general, if they really want to simulate the rigors of college, they should make it an open-book, open-note, 24-hour take-home exam.

The SAT was not, I thought, supposed to test actual skills. If it were, it was going about it all wrong. It was supposed to be about your test-taking aptitude — like most things that helicoptered kids spend a lot of time cultivating, a skill with limited applications in the actual world.

Right now, the SAT tests your ability to transform a hideously worded and grammatically incorrect sentence into a sentence that is just hideously worded.

It allows you to demonstrate that you have mathematical skills that will be completely irrelevant to your life afterward. “In real life, I assure you,” Fran Lebowitz said, “there is no such thing as algebra.” She was right. The closest I have come to using algebra since graduation was when I could not tell if I had eaten more than a serving of Ritz crackers by calculating the number in each wrapped cylinder. Then I realized that what I was doing was subtraction.

Then again, the man suggesting these changes is the man behind the Common Core standards, which, among other things, imply that it is more exciting and relevant to read a lot of grim technical manuals about insulation than the Catcher in the Rye. So I don’t actually know what he has in store for us. It is difficult to imagine any grimmer reading passages than those already on the SAT. I’ve been wrong before.

In general, this seems like a strange move.

A test that better prepares for the rigors of college and career? Has he seen this economy for millennials? Rigors of college? Don’t make me laugh.

Career? Don’t make me laugh, then cry.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.