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When Will People Learn to Boycott the SAT?

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“It’s really stressful, because my whole life is the SAT.”

So said Dylan Ottman of Massachusetts, after arriving to take the SAT last Saturday morning, only to find that it had been postponed because of a snowstorm.

I’d like to give some advice to young Dylan: chill out, stop studying, and go have some fun between now and the make-up date. And when that day arrives, do your best but don’t stress about it. The rest of your life doesn’t really hinge on that stupid test, despite what the adults are saying. Sure, every point might count at your school of choice, but a rejection letter wouldn’t signal the end of the world. Plenty of schools eagerly accept, if not recruit, solid students who merely “underperformed” on the SAT.

In fact, more than 400 colleges and universities, including my alma mater, either don’t require the SAT at all or use it only under special circumstances, such as for placement or academic advising, for out-of-state applicants, when minimum GPA or class rank is not met, or for special programs. Go to one of those and save some teenage angst for life’s bigger issues, such as how long Brittany’s [second] marriage will last.

How stupid is the SAT, you ask? Witness the following essay question, which test-takers had a whopping 25 minutes to answer. On the spot. With no prior knowledge of the topic.

Does creativity have a role in the contemporary world?

It’s a groaner, isn’t it, exactly the kind of essay question you dreaded when you were in school? Dreading a question: not a good way to start a 4-hour test that you’re convinced will make or break your future.

Let’s review what’s wrong with it:

  • The question begs a short response: Who cares?
  • Pop-quiz essay questions must easily relate to the average high school student’s life — if there even is such a thing, which is a whole ‘nuther can of worms. This question does not easily appeal to common experience, in part because it’s based on an abstract, pseudo-intellectual concept. Pop-quiz essay questions must be concrete so that students can quickly focus, generate a thesis, and defend it with specific examples. Half the battle in writing is knowing what you want to say. The other half is saying it with confidence. How many h.s. students know what they want to say about creativity in the modern world? How confident do you think those essays will sound? Not very. Ask a fuzzy question, get fuzzy answers.
  • The question doesn’t even reflect a real-world application of students’ skills. Real college students are asked to write timed essays [as on History tests] about topics they’ve been studying, not random topics that they may know nothing about. They’re not asked to muse on the spot for a high-stakes test. How can the answers to this question predict success in college, as the SAT claims to do, when the question doesn’t reflect a common college assignment?
  • 25 minutes is not a lot of time for a pop-quiz essay question, especially on a high stakes test. Writing takes time, and good writing takes a lot of time. On the current test, I’d say students must start jotting notes immediately and then start drafting with least 15 minutes left. How many kids do you think were able to jump out of the gates on this topic?

So if you want to design a good timed, pop-quiz essay question, one that can assess writing skills [rather than content knowledge or level of interest in an abstract concept], ask students to write about something relevant to their lives. Try to find a topic that all students can easily relate to their personal experiences, something they’ve read or studied, or something in their collective cultural experience.

Here’s another question from the recent SAT. This one gets closer to the mark:

Take a stand on whether majority rule is a good way for groups to make decisions.

Not bad. All students have some sort of group experience to draw from: school, family, work, sports, orchestra/band, clubs, the list goes on. They can quickly use one of those group experiences as an extended example that supports their thesis. So this question can be used to assess writing ability, to the extent that you can assess writing ability with any timed test.

I would argue however, that with a 25-minute pop-quiz essay, you can’t do much more than evaluate someone’s ability to write an answer to an unknown topic in 25 minutes. That’s not the same thing as being able to evaluate overall writing ability or predict success in college courses. Then again, I’m a stickler for designing assessments that match their own goals. I also prefer that people interpret assessment results according to the skills the assessments are actually measuring, instead of what the reviewers wish they were measuring.

In the end, essay tests should help students succeed, not push and baffle them into failure. So if we’re going to give essay tests, we need to give students:

  • More than one question to choose from
  • More than 25 minutes to write the essay [like two 40-minute sessions over two days, one for a first draft and one for a revision, with a night in-between for reflection]
  • Questions that are relevant to the vast majority of h.s. students, but not so broad that they’re based on abstract ideas like “creativity” that some graduate-student-test-writer came up with while navel gazing
  • Questions that don’t have hidden subject matter requirements [i.e., “Using an example from American literature….”]

Reasonable people know that a 25-minute test should never be used in the college admissions process in the first place. College placement, yes — might this kid need a basic writing course, or can s/he go right into freshman composition? — but not as a graded test that can affect college admissions. But since the writing test is here, the College Board should at least design a good, fair test.

Of course, I say skip the SAT altogether. Four hundred schools, such as the University of Iowa and Franklin & Marshall College, have made it optional and are doing just fine without it. Some of them realized that the test causes a stress level wildly disproportionate to the test’s usefulness: students get so worked up about the SAT that you’d think they didn’t have course grades, teacher recommendations, state tests, and other academic records to submit, too.

Unfortunately, the SAT won’t go away any time soon because — students be damned — there’s too much money to be made. Add that to the whole “education = passing a standardized test” trend in this country, and you realize that the SAT will probably get worse before it gets better.

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Also posted at Bitch Has *Word*.

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  • http://wisdomandmurder.blogspot.com Lisa McKay

    Not to mention the whole cottage industry that’s grown up around helping kids prep for the test. When my son was a junior in high school we must have gotten five or six flyers in the mail every week from these places, and they’re hideously expensive classes (and I don’t think you get a money-back guarantee). When we made the rounds of colleges, one of the things we heard from every single admissions officer was that the high school transcript was way more important in the long run than the SAT scores, which likely means that success in high school, along with a reasonably challenging curriculum, is more predictive of success in college than how one did on a standardized test.

  • http://rearwindowethics.blogspot.com Travis

    I couldn’t agree more. It’s the same argument I make against the transition our nation’s classrooms are currently making toward “test teaching” instead of more creative teaching.

    I don’t know what’s going to happen in 20 years when creative thinking is missing from the workforce because of the insane amount of importance placed on standardized tests.

  • http://www.bhwblog.com bhw

    Lisa, you’re exactly right. Colleges and unversities have said exactly what you said: that high school records are much better predictors of college success than the SAT ever was.

    Also, a couple of the articles I linked to talk about the big business of SAT prep, as well as how it’s so expensive that underprivileged kids have no chance of taking a class. So we have another gap in opportunity based on socio-economic status. The ‘haves’ get test preparation, the ‘have nots’ don’t.

    From the Business Week article: “Test prep and tutoring services in the U.S. took in an estimated $702 million in 2003, and that’s expected to grow to $960 million this year, according to Eduventures.”

    Essentially, every time the SAT changes its format, the test prep companies rake in extra profits.

    What a racket.

  • http://www.bhwblog.com bhw

    Travis, I’m in complete agreement on the standardized testing craze taking over public schools. As with the SAT, it will get worse before it gets better, sadly.

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