Some good, some bad in SAT changes

March 22, 2014

If you’re in high school right now, this is the time of year jammed with agita, as college-acceptance letters and scores on standardized tests arrive. As higher education has become more costly and competitive, the stakes for ambitious students can seem perilously high.

At this angst-ridden, nail-bitten juncture, at least three students at Peters Township High School had reason to smile this month – two of them achieved a rare perfect score of 2,400 on the SAT, while a third managed to miss a perfect score by only 50 points, but nonetheless pulled off a perfect score of 36 on the ACT. Commendable? That’s putting it mildly .

The type of SAT their successors will be taking is due for some revisions, however. Starting in 2016, the College Board announced earlier this month, the SAT will be making the essay portion of the test optional rather than required and eliminating some vocabulary words that no longer carry much “utility,” to use their word. Incorrect answers on the SAT will also carry no penalty.

The College Board’s administrators said the changes would jibe more closely with what students absorb in the classroom and eliminate needless stress for students. “No longer will it be good enough to focus on tricks and trying to eliminate answer choices,” according to David Coleman, the College Board’s CEO. “We are not interested in students just picking an answer, but justifying their answers.”

There is, most probably, a brute economic reality attached to these adjustments – the ACT recently surpassed the SAT as the standardized test more students take, so a “New Coke” makeover was seemingly necessary. One assumes, though, the SAT will find more of a foothold in the marketplace than the soft drink’s ill-conceived mid-1980s reinvention.

At first glance, the elimination of the essay, which was added a mere nine years ago, made us wary. We are, after all, wordsmiths who do our best to cobble together coherent arguments on a tight deadline. It’s the kind of assignment that’s more appealing to us than, say, trying to wrack our brains about transcendental numbers or rationalizing the denominator.

But many colleges and universities have never seriously factored a student’s performance on the essay into their admissions calculations, and some education experts doubted how much an essay pounded out on ambiguous philosophical topics, such as self-reliance versus dependency or whether pursuing our desires or attaining them offers the greatest satisfaction, really offers a reliable gauge of how well a student can gather their thoughts and express them. These arguments carry some weight.

On the other hand, the elimination of vocabulary words from the test strikes us as being part of the worrisome trend in education of making all subjects utilitarian or job-focused. Sure, “prevaricator” doesn’t come up in everyday conversation much anymore. The simpler “liar” usually does the trick. But knowing what “prevaricator” means, as well as other words that don’t show up in emails, text messages, memos or many other forms of daily interaction, can help students become more expressive, fluid writers. As Susannah Barton Tobin of the Harvard Law School said in The Boston Globe, “clarity of expression has never benefited from a narrow vocabulary; indeed, a wide-ranging vocabulary is essential for precise, evocative prose.”

That’s a skill that matters beyond a standardized test, classroom or the 9-to-5.



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