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Now that the announcement about big SAT changes is behind us, it’s time to look at what it all means. Not so much, apparently. To explain why, and suggest a better way to give a college admissions test is John Kaztman, founder of Princeton Review, a test prep and college admissions services company; 2u, which partners with top universities to provide online degree programs; and Noodle, a search and recommendation education engine.

By John Katzman

  • 1990 “We’re trying to design a test reflecting the expectation that students must develop better writing and reasoning skills. That message has to be heard by high schools.”
  • 2002: “The new SAT … is more closely aligned to the curriculum and what kids are learning in school every day.”
  • 2014: “The SAT will no longer stand apart from … daily studies and learning.”

 

Every 12 years, the president of the College Board announces important new changes that will better align the SAT to high school curricula and promote reading and writing.  Yet the test still fails, and these changes are unlikely to help it pass. Like Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, The College Board is stuck in one place and every day is exactly the same, and nothing that it does matters.

The ACT, the other college admissions test, has not spent these last few decades stuck in Punxsutawney.  Unlike the SAT, it has always aligned well to an average high school curriculum, and has never misrepresented itself as an IQ test. And steadily, it has eclipsed the SAT in reputation and popularity.

Struggling to find ways to fix the SAT, the College Board has tweaked the test to resemble its rival more closely.  The proposed changes make the essay optional, allow students to take the test online or on paper, de-emphasize esoteric vocabulary, emphasize science, eliminate the penalty for wrong answers, and, of course, better align the test to curricula.  In other words, if you want to see the new SAT this year, just take the ACT.

That said, these changes continue the College Board’s long history of saying one thing and doing another. While describing the changes as profound, the board is assuring colleges that scores on the new test are equivalent to scores on the old one — which can only be possible if the tests measure the same things. While promoting its improved preparation tools through the online Khan Academy, it argues that the test will be less coachable. And while talking about fairness, it is eliminating the one section of the test — writing — that does not under-predict the college performance of women.

While the ACT has long been fairer and more student-centered than the SAT, neither test is a 21st century ideal. A really good testing regime would truly be worth the ink that’s been shed here.

First, curriculum should truly drive the test, not the other way around.  Unlike the SAT and ACT, which start with the idea that all students should know some set of arbitrary things, a great testing system would promote excellence and passion by letting students decide which subjects they would take. The College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) program actually does this; students get the chance to choose subjects that are most compelling to them. Meanwhile, colleges looking at candidates who each took three different APs can still get a good sense of their abilities.

Second, a test administered by computer can test more interesting concepts in more authentic ways. Multiple-choice questions are a vestige of a paper-and-pencil test that restricts our ability to look for real understanding of concepts and skills.

Third, we learn every year about what we might want to test and how to measure it; a good testing regimen should be designed for constant improvement. The current tests are designed to measure consistently from year to year; while it’s fun to compare my scores to those of my son (he beat me), colleges only care about how he stacks up to other students applying this year.  And the consistency is at the expense of innovation and relevancy.

Finally, a good test should be secure and open; surprisingly, these come as a package. The biggest security loophole on the current tests is time zones; someone taking the test in London is finished long before a New Yorker starts the test. Further, the limited number of forms means that the tests can only be administered a few times a year.  A smart testing company would simply publish their entire pool of items and let students practice on them; each test would be a different path through those items. This would allow students to take the test at convenient times without opening a security hole (a student memorizing tens of thousands of items would have an advantage, but so would anyone studying for the years of work that would take).

The College Board itself recently noted that only one in five teachers considers the SAT to be a fair measure of a student’s work. Starting with a clean sheet of paper and some common-sense principles, any number of us could design a college admissions test that rewards true academic rigor and encourages learning as part of the test prep process.

Perhaps this new announcement is the wake-up call that someone needs to get started.