Does the revamped SAT meet the standards?

Tacoma News TribuneMarch 21, 2014 

Educational testing generates much hand-wringing. Most often, it’s over the effectiveness, usefulness or fairness of standardized testing of K-12 students.

More recently, the College Board stirred the cauldron of frustration and discontent by announcing major changes to the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT — the traditional bellwether of a student’s college preparedness and anchor of the entrance application.

David Coleman, the new president of the College Board, announced changes that are supposed to make the test a more realistic and accurate evaluation both of what students have already learned and a prediction of how they’ll do in college.

On the reading section, for example, it will no longer be adequate to answer a comprehension question correctly. The tester must also select the passage from the text that supports the answer. This evidence-based reading (and writing) is supposed to show greater understanding.

Of course, it’s not clear that it will, because every test design has strengths and weaknesses. In short, there are angles to take, games to play, etc.

Each spring, I show my eighth-graders how to answer multiple-choice Measurement of Student Progress reading comprehension questions without even reading the passage. They get about five out of eight correct. Based on random guessing, we would assume they’d get roughly two right.

You might call this a “trick of the trade” — the test-taking trade. The new SAT may shut down some of the tricks on the old SAT, but new angles will open up. Clever and interested people will find them, we can be sure.

But the problem with the SAT runs even deeper. The College Board’s Coleman was purportedly one of the principal authors of the new Common Core State Standards, and he has professed his intention to align (match) the SAT to the Common Core.

Sounds sensible. But such a connection stimulates another kind of trick: teaching even more to the test.

Teachers’ efforts (including mine) to understand the demands of the new standards typically start with a plea: “Just let me see the test.” In other words, the incentive and impulse to shape teaching for the sake of the test are already present and strong. So if we want students to learn broadly across a range of skills and content, we should cut back linkages like this one, not make more of them.

Aligning the SAT to the Common Core might, in other words, ultimately render the SAT less meaningful, not more, by making it like another round of the standardized tests administered in high school. Indeed, if the SAT is just going to match the high school standards, why wouldn’t the standardized test results from high school suffice?

In any case, that discussion may be so much intellectual frippery. A far greater concern is whether both the Common Core standards and SAT, especially in their intertwining, actually teach and test things that we value. The jury is still out on this, but the evidence is mixed at best.

The so-called “deep reading” (reading and re-reading texts, looking only for the intent of the author and brooking no reader response) that many laud in the Common Core, and that Coleman seems intent to test on the SAT, may not make or prove students ready for college any more than prior standards.

Indeed, an informal survey of a few college faculty revealed surprise at the idea of extensive re-readings of texts (as posited by the Common Core).

Social science and humanities professors (perhaps except those who specifically employ the scholarly technique of textual analysis) tend to prefer that students read widely in a topic to discern both the breadth and depth of a “discussion” going on, then find the way into that discussion with the student’s own analytical insights, which move beyond the authors’ own material. Testing aptitude and preparation for this would be lengthy and costly.

So in the current educational culture we get the Common Core and the new SAT, and find the effort good. After all, it’s not for lack of effort that Tacoma’s schools aren’t getting better. Too bad the standards don’t give credit for effort.

Andrew K. Milton teaches eighth-grade English at Pioneer Middle School in the Steilacoom Historical School District. He also recently authored “The Normal Accident Theory of Education” (Rowman & Littlefield).

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