Once again the dreaded SAT, known universally with fear and trembling by millions of students, has been altered in an attempt to prove it is still relevant — if, of course, it ever was.
The College Board, which owns the exam, wants to make it more pertinent to today’s classroom and blunt the erosion in the number of students who take it and the colleges that demand it. It’s about time. At stake are enormous revenues generated by applicant fees and a cottage industry of prep courses that have been the source of well-deserved criticism.
The claims by the test’s architects that it is a valid measure of what a student has learned in 12 years of elementary and secondary education has been undercut by the fact that it is subject to short-term improvement and that success often comes through expensive classes that center on how to take the exam. The cost of these preparatory lessons is far beyond the means of many students.
The fact the College Board has decided to do what it has always claimed it does — emphasize classroom study — seems to verify the allegations about the exam’s inability to predict success in higher education. From that standpoint, the new version of the SAT is being more correctly described as an achievement test rather than one measuring aptitude for education.
The test has been terribly flawed, if not downright unfair, in both its language and mathematics sections. The revised exam does away with rarely used archaic words memorized but then quickly forgotten by students. The math questions now center on reading charts, analysis of evidence and applying algebra generally taught in school. Gone are the trick questions and guessing penalty.
The new SAT also returns to its traditional top score of 1600 in two segments and away from the essay that was added in 2005 and brought the perfect score to 2400.
Whether this incarnation of the 90-year-old exam will stem the flow of colleges and universities away from it remains to be seen.
It already had been losing ground to the ACT, an exam regarded by many students as more relevant and accurate in its approach to the modern classroom.
The exam was unveiled for students in certain venues about two weeks ago. More than 450,000 students are expected to take it this month. Their success or lack thereof ultimately will decide the fate of the exam that came to overwhelming prominence following World War II and the post-war baby boom. Until then, it had been primarily used by private colleges and universities. Most public state institutions were bound by law to admit every high school graduate who applied for at least one semester.
That so called open admissions policy for state schools has mainly disappeared with the diminishing of state funding. Public universities have turned to out-of-state and foreign applicants to take up the financial slack, and high test scores have become less important.
The Ivy League, sub-Ivies and elites like Stanford – the most difficult admissions challenge in the nation — can be counted on to support the College Board in the future. But the irony of all this is that one can make a perfect or near-perfect score in both the SAT and the ACT and register a perfect grade point average in high school, not to mention middle school, taking nothing but Advanced Placement courses from an outstanding public high school and never crack one of these schools.
The Ivies and Stanford and others in this category accept only a small percentage of the high school seniors who apply each year and most of those aren’t from public suburban high schools, no matter how bright they are. A Yale recruiter meeting with students from a Fairfax, Va., high school ranked in the top 75 nationally was asked how many students had been accepted from that school in the past. He replied that none had. That year one student was chosen. Largely I think because his good grades were supplemented by the fact he was a drum major.
So in the long run, changes or not, the SAT may revert to where it was when I went to school, an exercise rarely scene in most parts of the country except for a handful of elite institutions.
Dan Thomasson is a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.