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Minding the Gap: SAT and the Socio-Economic Divide

In last week's blog I talked about potential changes to the SAT, which will include (according to a College Board president David Coleman) more curriculum-relevant vocabulary and math exercises. Coleman alluded to problems in the current version of the test, including the fact that it consistently under-predicts success for low-income test-takers, and suggested that among the proposed changes would be more efforts to support these high-needs students. (The specific of this plan have yet to be fully disclosed.) A lot of readers had questions about my assertions that the SAT includes vocabulary and math that are disconnected from the subject matter that students are learning in school, and also about my perhaps poor attempts to (succinctly) explain the difference between the SAT and ACT. So I wanted to clarify a couple of my assertions about SAT questions, and also to discuss some of the problems with the test that are perhaps not being addressed by the College Board's SAT overhaul.

The issue of relevance to curriculum is perhaps most visible in the Critical Reading section of the test, which features words such as "perfidious," "vituperated," or "adumbrate"--words Coleman views as esoteric, and wants to replace with ones like "distill" or "synthesis," which would undeniably have a more clear connection to work students are doing in science and history classes. However, in the Math section of the test, the questions' seeming disconnect from coursework has less to do with content than with presentation: Students may struggle to answer math questions that cover skills they have mastered in class but are phrased confusingly, or ask for the type of "one-off" answer wherein a student recognizes he or she must utilize the skill set to, say, solve for X--but the paragraph-long question ultimately asks for X+2. I have found these questions to flummox students who actually are capable of higher-level math, simply because they're accustomed to more straightforward questions.

One could argue that what the SAT is really testing is reading comprehension, and indeed, the best test-takers of any socio-economic bracket have the overwhelming advantage of having been prolific readers for years. Growing up in Virginia, I knew almost no one who had any type of SAT tutor (more on this in a bit), yet I knew many kids who did well on the SATs--and all of them had grown up in "print-rich environments" (i.e., their parents had surrounded them with books and shuttled them to and from the library regularly, ever since they were tiny children.) Reading comprehension is an area where high-needs students, many of whom have not grown up surrounded by adults who modeled good literary habits, really lag behind their wealthier peers (who essentially had a multi-year head start in SAT prep, by virtue of having been reading more consistently since childhood.) This "longevity of literacy," to coin a phrase, is an advantage in all academic areas--not only on the SATs--and is, I think, one of the main reasons for intractable socio-economic gaps in education.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of wealthy kids who don't enjoy reading, who spend far more time on Facebook or playing video games than they do flipping through books, and yet manage to get better SAT scores than perhaps more intelligent and studious peers in lower socio-economic backgrounds. And this is due to what may be the biggest problem with the SAT, as far as its perpetuation of socio-economic gaps: the proliferation of SAT tutoring among those who can afford such a service.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I tutored kids for the SATs for several years while I was putting myself through graduate school, and then--once I returned to teaching full time--still did some private tutoring, while also running SAT prep classes and one-on-one tutorials for students in the public school where I teach as part of my professional assignment (work that teachers do outside of teaching their regular classes.) It has often been difficult for me to persuade students in our school to attend SAT prep classes, mine or anyone else's. This is partly because the test is (admittedly) a bit boring to study for, and the kids have trouble seeing the value in it; moreover, they have a host of after-school commitments, such as picking up younger siblings from school or going to part-time jobs.

For the wealthy kids, attendance to prep classes isn't an issue--their parents either drop them off at the tutoring center, or have tutors come to their homes at convenient hours. (And when tutoring can cost hundreds of dollars an hour, you'd better believe they're not missing their appointments.) The importance of doing well on the test is unquestioned, even while the validity of the test itself may be. In New York City, wealthier students will meet with an SAT tutor for an hour or more each week in the months prior to the test. In these sessions, they will receive tutoring that teaches them not the academic content that would be relevant in their coursework, but the rules of the SAT "game"--specific strategies about how to rule out certain choices (in a multiple-choice test) based on keywords, how to scan the reading not for overall understanding but for answers to the questions, and how to "guess" effectively. The SAT, like many other standardized tests, asks certain questions in predictable and consistent ways, and knowing the "tricks" for answering these questions--a skill set that is not taught in most regular academic courses--can improve a student's score on the SATs, even in the absence of a strong literacy background. Having a private tutor to teach these skills, however, is a luxury afforded only to a certain socio-economic group, and as long as the option to receive such tutoring persists, the gap between wealthy and poor students will also be extant.

So, how can the College Board really close the SAT achievement gap? In an ideal situation, students would no longer be permitted to receive private tutoring for the test. Just as students now sign a statement saying they've had no knowledge of the test questions before the day of the test, they would also attest that they had not received any outside tutoring. (Note: I realize this will never happen, not only because it would be near-impossible to enforce, but also because it would put a billion dollar cottage industry out of business.) This would eliminate one major (and fundamentally unfair) advantage that wealthier test-takers have over their poorer counterparts.

Furthermore, given that the expense of taking the test multiple times is prohibitive for students who are dependent on fee waivers (and can only receive 1-2 of them), whereas wealthier students can afford to take the test as many times as they like, the College Board could also make a rule that the test can only be taken a maximum of twice by a given student. Though less pressing an issue than that of private tutoring, taking and re-taking the test ad infinitum should not be permissible, as the advantage of multiple attempts is yet another unnecessary exacerbation of rich-poor score disparities.

If the College Board is truly committed to offering opportunities to high-needs students, concerted efforts towards leveling the playing field, and making the SAT what it purports to be--a standardized test--would be a good start.

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