Have you really looked at the SAT lately?

January 18, 2024
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Recent days have brought another spasm of commentary and debate about the role and fate of the SAT, triggered by a piece by influential New York Times voice David Leonhardt titled “The Misguided War on the SAT.”

Leonhardt contends that the movement away from the SAT is potentially harming lower-income students who do well on the tests, thus showing “enormous potential” that is not going to be realized because they cannot compete for the precious spots in the “Ivy-plus” cohort of institutions. Rather than getting in the weeds about to what extent the SAT is predictive of future college success in these institutions or is useful in deciding which students are most deserving (whatever that means) of matriculation, I will note that these institutions serve 0.6 percent of the undergraduate population in the United States.

I’ll also point people toward the comprehensive roundup by Inside Higher Ed’s Liam Knox of comments made in the aftermath of the publishing of Leonhardt’s piece. If you want the full scoop of who said what and where they’re coming from, it’s one-stop reading.

Mostly I want to talk about the SAT itself, what kind of test it is, what it values in terms of learning and performance, and how little those things relate to what I think most people would say is meaningful in terms of one’s intellectual development.

Those who believe in the value of the SAT think it is an indicator of intelligence and therefore a valid proxy for the ability to succeed at school. In fact, I’ve heard from someone just recently that the evidence for this claim is right in the name of the test, SAT—Scholastic Aptitude Test—but the College Board, in recognition of reality, changed it to the Scholastic Assessment Test in 2012.

I get the sense that most of the people who write in praise of the SAT have not taken the time to familiarize themselves with the specifics of the SAT.

But I have.

Back in 2021, I retook the SAT, 34 years after the first (and only time) I’d taken it previously as a junior in high school. The reading and writing test was administered by Akil Bello, the senior director of advocacy and advancement at FairTest, and the math test was overseen by my friend since nursery school, Stephen Weber, who directs an educational services company, Educational Endeavors, and whose work includes tutoring students for tests like the SAT and ACT.

On the reading and writing exam, I scored a 660, a drop of 60 to 80 points from my previous performance. On math, I came it at 570, well below my high school score but higher than my pretest prediction of 520.

My first impression of both was how much they had changed since my high school days. The verbal SAT in 1987 was primarily a vocabulary test and therefore up my alley since I was a committed reader of everything. The reading and writing SAT wanted me to skim a bunch of short passages and then answer questions where the purpose was not entirely clear to me. I took the test cold without any prep, orientation or coaching, and there were a few questions where it wasn’t entirely clear (to me) what I was being asked to evaluate.

Bello told me that the reading section “tests your ability to read with a pedantic specificity and paraphrase with flexible precision,” and that sounds about right. I kept wanting to evaluate the short passage as a whole—as I do when I’m responding to student writing—but the test wanted me focused on individual bits in isolation. With practice I’m sure I could get my brain oriented around what the test demands, but I’m not sure why I’d want to do that, since reading that way does me no good when it comes to my work.

In that section I also failed to correctly transcribe two of my answers from the question sheet (where I’d circled everything) to the scan sheet—massive rookie error, the kind of error that could prevent a student from achieving a threshold score that would put them into the consideration set for an elite institution.

Ironically enough, given that I make my living as a writer, it was the writing and language section where I gave away the most points. Of this section, Bello said that its focus is “on rules above convention in specific, pedantic ways.” Zeroing in on what the test requires in this section requires you to almost obliterate any appreciation for style, expression or meaning in order to focus on whatever pedantic rule the question is predicated on.

When it came to the math exam, anything past Algebra I and basic geometry was a virtual no-hoper for me, though I did pull out a couple of correct answers on questions where I had no underlying knowledge of the math mechanics by reasoning through the answers relative to the question and making an educated guess or two. My oldest friend called that lucky, but I knew better.

Both Weber and Bello made clear that the chief challenge of these tests is their “speededness”—that they are deliberately designed to make it difficult to complete all the questions in the given time. Thinking quickly under pressure is a necessary component to a very high score.

Having no expertise in mathematics pedagogy, I cannot say whether the way the SAT questions are designed for the math exam is narrow and pedantic in the way the questions on the reading and writing exam are, but I can say I’ve had a successful adulthood without having to be able to do anything meaningful with sines, cosines and tangents.

Back in 2014, I wrote a post about the vacuity of the phrase “college and career ready” when applied to students, particularly when this supposed readiness was predicated on standardized test scores.

I argued that there were a number of traits that I thought served students well when it came to maximizing the potential of their college educations: being curious, being passionate and being capable of self-regulation.

If you squint, you could see how doing well on the SAT could be a by-product of these traits, but the curiosity, passion and self-regulation would have to be singularly directed toward the object of doing well on the SAT. I bet this is the mindset of students who do score at the top of the curve, and good for them.

But I think we can all agree that there are many other ways for someone to manifest those traits and that doing aces on the SAT is probably well down the list of meaningful activities in which we could demonstrate those traits.

Deep down, when someone has passionate feelings about the importance and validity of the SAT, I think it’s mostly a matter of them operating from a different set of values than I attach to education. I think they believe in the central importance of the ranking and sorting function of schooling.

I’ve always been interested in the learning and development side of things, and for me, there’s not much of interest to be learned by taking the SAT.



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