We’ve heard a lot recently about the “new” SAT, the national standardized test created and marketed by the private, not-for-profit College Board and used by many colleges and universities as the most important part of their admissions process. It is in the news because of the fear it instills in almost every high school student in America: the underlying message is “Blow the SAT and forget about your future.” What’s more, the person in charge of this operation, a man named David Coleman, is also one of the principal architects of — you guessed it — the Common Core State Standards.
Let me explain why the “new” SAT is just as bogus as the “old” SAT and, most importantly, why it wastes the time of students, parents and educators.
First, according to Mr. Coleman, the “new” SAT is a “fairer” test because it will reflect what actually goes on in high school learning and because it will assess student mastery of new national learning standards, the Common Core.
So the first thing you need to know, according to Mr. Coleman, is that these new learning standards, at least insofar as English Language Arts are concerned, all point toward something called “close reading” and “expository writing.” You can hear Mr. Coleman sing the praises of these “new” learning standards in an eight-minute video production about how to teach students to read the Gettysburg Address, created for the state education department’s website, engageny.org. The truth is that these “new” standards are as old as the hills and have been accepted by educators for generations.
Among other things, Mr. Coleman tells us that to teach these important standards properly, students must have considerable time to read and re-read texts, time to discuss the words and sentences used in the text, time to write about the meaning of the words in the text and time to edit what they write. One problem with the “new” and “fairer” SAT is that it uses multiple-choice questions to assess whether students understand the meaning of words in texts instead of having students write about such meanings — the skill Mr. Coleman insists is the signature skill of the Common Core. To make matters worse, the new SAT has a writing section but it is optional. So the “new” and “fairer” SAT, one that will reflect what actually goes on in high school classrooms, will not, in fact, adhere to the new Common Core State Standards as described by the very person who created both.
Second, the SAT is a type of test known as a “norm-referenced” test, which means that its purpose is to identify not what students know about the material the test measures but only what they know in relation to what other students know — and to do so in a way that necessarily accords only a certain percentage of all the students who take the test a certain score. (In other words, this test is a “bell-curved” test.) Thus, only a very small percentage of students who take this “fairer” test can ever get a very high (or low) score, while the vast majority of students who take the test must get an average score. No matter who takes the test, or how many students take the test, the distribution of scores must always remain the same. So if every student in America somehow masters all the new learning standards being put forward in New York and elsewhere, the same exact percentage of students will earn the same exact score on the “new” and “fairer” SAT as students did 10, 15 or 25 years ago. Although the College Board insists that it is impossible to “fool” the test, it is common knowledge that the test remains a game of musical chairs, a game everyone knows is rigged in favor of those students who have money to “game the system.” (Just ask the folks at Kaplan, the company that has profited enormously from selling techniques that enable students to increase their SAT scores.) No matter how well students actually learn how to read and to write, only a small proportion of them can get a high score on this “fairer” version of the “new” SAT, and money, not genuine learning, has a lot to do with the result.
Third, according to Mr. Coleman and the state Board of Regents, the “new” and “fairer” SAT is oriented to higher, better standards that will prepare students to be “college and career ready.” Common Core State Standards, we are told, are also a complete set of standards, in addition to being better. However, if one looks at assessments used by some of the most renowned universities in the world — schools like Oxford University in England — one finds that they adhere to standards ignored by “higher” Common Core State Standards. For example, if one wanted to study, say, history at Oxford, one would have to take a test that assesses not only clear and precise writing via a real writing test; the content would have to demonstrate what Oxford calls “historical imagination” as well as “originality.” Nowhere in our new, vaunted Common Core State Standards are teachers told to be concerned with nurturing young people’s imaginations or their original thoughts about the books they read, about the way nature works, about whether our government’s policies are good or bad, about whether the Pythagorean theorem could be used to help design a better bridge over the Hudson river, or whether “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Nor will the “new” and “fairer” SAT ask students to write about such matters.
The “new” and “fairer” SAT is neither. And the Common Core State Standards assessed by this new test do not include, contrary to what many seem to believe, nurturing young people’s imaginations or originality: yet another instance of the profound cynicism of contemporary education “reform.”
Steven R. Cohen, Ph.D., is superintendent of schools for Shoreham-Wading River School District. He can be reached at (631) 821-8105.