Opinion: Daily Journal

A Humdrum SAT for The Real World

Photo Credit: Shutterstock
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Teen geniuses and word wizards just lost their competitive edge with the nation’s most established college admissions exam. There’s a new SAT in town, and this one favors the mundane over the arcane.

Debuting in March, this latest version of the SAT represents the test’s most substantive revision in decades. Proponents say it assesses the skills necessary for college and career more accurately. Detractors say it has been dumbed down following years of declining scores.

One thing is clear: The SAT has drifted far from its early moorings as an aptitude test. The focus of the new SAT, like everything else in education right now, is on “the real world.” High schoolers are tested on vocabulary they’ll use “long after test day,” according to the SAT’s publisher, the College Board. Reading requires analysis of mostly nonfiction texts and is “about the everyday.”

I slogged through a sample reading passage and infographic about the time costs of commuting. The College Board isn’t kidding. Welcome, kids, to the tedium of the workaday world.

Deep, not broad, the SAT’s new math section hones in on three areas: linear equations and systems; problem solving and data analysis; and complex equations, according to the College Board. Expect multiple steps and loads of word problems about real world scenarios. Gary Gruber, an expert on standardized testing and founder of Gruber Prep, says the new SAT focuses less on critical thinking; many questions, especially in math, are “either very easy or very tedious,” he says.

Students are likely to cheer, not bemoan, other changes. The guessing penalty — a quarter-point deduction for each wrong answer — is gone. Multiple-choice answer options have been trimmed from five to four, bumping up the odds of choosing correctly. The essay is optional. Scoring reverts to a 1,600-point scale for two sections: Math and the renamed Evidence-Based Reading and Writing.

Why change the once venerable SAT? The adoption of Common Core by most states has played a pivotal role, as testing companies have raced to ensure assessments are aligned with the standards. The chief architect of Common Core, David Coleman, is the man behind the new SAT: Coleman became the College Board’s president in 2012. If you don’t like Common Core, you probably won’t like this test.

What else is fueling the shift? Economics, plain and simple. Facing dwindling market share, the College Board has created a test that resembles the ACT, students’ now-preferred college admissions exam nationally.

The ACT also enjoys market dominance in North Carolina, a trend fueled in part by the fact that the state began requiring all public school 11th graders to take the test in 2012 as part of its accountability program.

Students elsewhere may find themselves locked into the new SAT as some states — previously committed to end-of-year Common Core exams developed by national consortia — defect in favor of the redesigned admissions exam. Already, a number of states have indicated they will use the SAT or ACT instead of consortium tests.

Perhaps most fundamentally, this SAT will deepen education’s divide over the following question: What do we want students to know and how should we test whether they know it? Of course, this issue is far bigger than the SAT. But the new test says much about where we’re headed. Think China, for rote learning patterns.

If tedium continues to trump critical thinking and creativity, we’ll incentivize and reward a different kind of student. This new SAT, says Gruber, “is not going to tap the smarter kids, the real creative kids.” That’s a shame. The real world needs them.

Kristen Blair is a Chapel Hill-based education writer.