Last week, the College Board excitedly unveiled its revamped SAT. I found myself unwowed, despite the adoring coverage. Now, I'm not particularly opposed to the changes, and I don't have any huge objections. But I am really puzzled that so much commentary seems to take the College Board's self-serving claims and promises at face value. Why my doubts? Here are five reasons.
I kept hearing that this was a harder, more challenging test. Maybe I'm a simple guy, but I have trouble squaring that with the decision to eliminate "hard" words like "punctilious" and "phlegmatic." I mean, I'm not sure I regard these words as all that "obscure." And, in any event, I don't know how you make a test more rigorous by dumbing down expectations for vocabulary.
The College Board announced the new test would put an end to the "tricks" that had made test prep so effective, advantaging students whose families could afford it. The new test is supposedly more immune to that. But we heard the exact same talking points a decade ago, when the test was last revised. Hell, that's why the analogies were put out to pasture. If anyone at College Board thinks that this time they've prep-proofed the test, I'm inclined to wait and see. Personally, I'd bet that within twelve months, the prep folks will have devised strategies to help coach "close reading" and otherwise adjusted to the new test. As a vice president for Kaplan Test Prep told the New York Times, "Test changes always spur demand."
With great fanfare, the College Board announced that the essay would no longer be mandatory. This a great blow for fairness, test validity, yada yada. But, if memory serves, the essay was once introduced with great fanfare, and the promise that it would bolster fairness, test validity, yada yada. So, has the value of essays changed that profoundly in a generation, or is this all just hyperkinetic spinning? (I tend to think it's the second).
The College Board got a ton of good press for announcing it's going to democratize test prep and increase access to materials and test questions. Fine, but I'm not sure why they couldn't have done that at any point--whether or not they revamped the test. So, not sure how this shift means the test is any better. Meanwhile, am curious to see if there are any unintended consequences. (I tend to suspect there may be).
To me, the Common Core'ification of the SAT isn't a self-evidently good thing. The test has been aggressively retooled to reflect the Common Core, disadvantaging kids in states that don't align to the Common Core standards. Interestingly, while this has been an integral part of the guiding philosophy at the College Board in the past couple years, it was finessed and basically side-stepped in last week's announcements. As the anti-Common Core'ites pick up on this, the shift may become more controversial. The result could politicize the SAT, in ways that may prove regrettable.
Here's my bottom line. There's a natural impulse to tinker, to try to "fix" things. This is particularly true of the kind of well-intentioned reformers who populate the world of education. But, after all, this isn't even the first time the SAT has been reinvented for the 21st century. So, I'm not sure why anyone thinks that this time they've got it right.