Opinion: Standardize This: Changes to SAT

Opinion: Standardize This: Changes to SAT

Opinion: Standardize This: Changes to SAT
March 06
00:41 2014

James Rambin // Contributing Writer

Yesterday, the College Board testing company announced major changes to their flagship product – the SAT college entrance exam.

Starting in 2016, the test – which is taken by a large portion of high school students to judge college readiness and attain acceptance to a university – will no longer require an essay, won’t penalize students for guessing on questions they don’t know and will change some of its tested vocabulary words to better match words that appear in an academic and professional environment.

The test will still evaluate reading, writing, vocabulary and math skills – but the College Board hopes that these changes will encourage actual critical thinking instead of endless preparation and memorization of vocabulary words.

The response to these changes has been largely positive, but a few commenters have decried the alterations as further proof that American students are being systematically “dumbed down” with falling educational standards.

Maybe back in your day, you had to walk uphill both ways for 10 miles to reach the one-room schoolhouse where they administered tests at gunpoint, but cry me a river, grandpa – the new SAT is a more adequate preparation for the challenges students actually face in college, the workplace and beyond.

Right out of the gate, the idea that test-takers were previously penalized for guessing wrong on questions they didn’t know, and were instead encouraged to leave that question blank is completely absurd. Seriously, how many times have you taken a college exam that worked like that? The educated guess is practically a foundational building block of our society – have you ever heard of the scientific method?

Additionally, changing the vocabulary words on the test to reflect what you see in academic and professional language is a no-brainer.

Unless you plan to be Charles Dickens for a living, words like “turpitude” and “obstreperous” are going to bid your brain farewell about twenty minutes after you walk out of the test – why not replace them with words like “empirical” that you’ll actually use?

If you’ve written an essay for the SAT in the years since the section was added in 2005, you probably won’t mourn its passing — unless you’re just mad that future high school students will no longer be required to suffer the same way you did.

Dumping a formulaic five-paragraph essay out of your head within a 25-minute time limit was always an exercise in limiting creativity. Considering that most graders say they only read an essay for about 90 seconds before deciding on a score, the best you could really do was stuff in as many token vocabulary words as possible to try and catch their eye during that short window.

And sure, that’s sort of an exercise in critical thinking right there – but anyone who writes for a living, or even just writes in college, knows that nobody operates like that outside of a standardized test.

In a perfect world, the benchmark of college acceptance would function like a job interview. The prospective student would meet with a professor from the subject they wished to major in, discuss their goals, talk about their grades in high school, and generally do their best to convey through the conversation that they were marginally functioning human beings capable of both participating in a discussion and expressing themselves thoughtfully.

There’d probably have to be a math or science test for the people pursuing more technical paths, but generally speaking, this sort of experience is what tests like the SAT should strive to replicate in a standardized format, instead of an exam requiring years of preparation and rote memorization to achieve exceptional scores.

That’s why you should be excited about the test’s upcoming changes – even if it’s tragically too late for you to benefit from them.

 Feature photo: Seaman Chanthorn Peou of San Diego, Calif., takes his Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) aboard the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk. Photo by U.S. Navy Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Jason T. Poplin. Photo courtesy of the United States Navy.

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