There is a recurring theme to The New York Times’ excellent feature behind the scenes of the new SAT changes: everyone hated the old test.
The recent changes to the SAT will likely change how students prepare for and score highly on the college entrance exam. The new test — masterminded by College Board President David Coleman — shifts toward a more practical questioning model than its much-criticised previous incarnation.
According to The Times, when Coleman took over he faced an “array of complaints coming from all of the College Board’s constituencies: teachers, students, parents, university presidents, college-admissions officers, high-school counselors. They were all unhappy with the test, and they all had valid reasons.“
One of the loudest SAT opponents was Les Perelman, a writing director at MIT. According to The Times, Perelman tried to expose what he saw as major flaws with the SAT essay by creatively coaching students on how to beat the system:
His earliest findings showed that length, more than any other factor, correlated with a high score on the essay. More recently, Perelman coached 16 students who were retaking the test after having received mediocre scores on the essay section. He told them that details mattered but factual accuracy didn’t. “You can tell them the War of 1812 began in 1945,” he said. He encouraged them to sprinkle in little-used but fancy words like “plethora” or “myriad” and to use two or three preselected quotes from prominent figures like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, regardless of whether they were relevant to the question asked.
The explicit lack of fact-checking on the SAT essays allowed Perelman’s students to post much higher scores when they retook the test, The Times reports.
Additionally, the people whom the SAT may impact the most — students and teachers — found that there were major problems with the test. As The Times reports:
Students despised the SAT not just because of the intense anxiety it caused — it was one of the biggest barriers to entry to the colleges they dreamed of attending — but also because they didn’t know what to expect from the exam and felt that it played clever tricks, asking the kinds of questions they rarely encountered in their high-school courses. Students were docked one-quarter point for every multiple-choice question they got wrong, requiring a time-consuming risk analysis to determine which questions to answer and which to leave blank. Teachers, too, felt the test wasn’t based on what they were doing in class, and yet the mean SAT scores of many high schools were published by state education departments, which meant that blame for poor performances was often directed at them.
Another major perceived fault of the old SAT was its seemingly intertwined relationship with a family’s income. Students who came from wealthier families tended to do better than students whose families had less money and, as Coleman told The Times, it was clear that “no parents, whatever their socioeconomic status, were satisfied” with the test.
As The Times reports:
The achievements of children from affluent families were tainted because they “bought” a score; those in the middle class cried foul because they couldn’t get the “good stuff” or were overextended trying to; and the poor, often minority students, were shut out completely.
The Times also describes a meeting Coleman had with Wade Henderson, the president and C.E.O. of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Henderson spoke with the College Board head about “the ill will that had been built up in the minority community over the SAT, how the test has long been viewed not as a launching pad to something better but as an obstacle to hard-working, conscientious students who couldn’t prepare for it in the way more affluent students could.”
More recently, the SAT has also begun to receive criticism from inside the ivory tower of academia. Since 2008, many colleges have dropped the SAT as a requirement, making it and competitor test the ACT optional for student applicants.
According to The Times, “many of the admissions officers [Coleman] spoke with made it clear that they were uncomfortable being beholden to the test, at least to this test.”
While it is still unclear how much of an impact these changes will have on the SAT, it seems like anything would be better than the old test. Whatever the merits are of the college entrance exam, it does appear that the people behind the SAT are listening to the numerous complaints.
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