March 5, 2014

"The changes [to the SAT] are the biggest the Board has made since its last major edit of the test, in 2005."

"In that overhaul, an essay section was added. In this overhaul, the essay will be subtracted, or at least become optional. The three-part score, with a maximum value of 2400, will revert to a two-part score, with a top value of 1600.... The Board will drop what the Times referred to as 'rarefied' vocabulary words, like 'membranous,' in favor of more workaday words, like 'synthesis.' And henceforth, each test will include a reading passage from a document like the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights."

I love this lurch toward tradition. And, of course, the essay section was a joke:
A study by an instructor at M.I.T. has shown that success on the SAT essay is closely correlated with length: the more words pile up, the higher the score. When, at Advantage Testing, Stier is shown essays that have received top marks, she is horrified. They are, she writes, “terrible.”
Stier is Debbie Stier, author of "The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT."


TML said...

Why is not easier to hate, distrust and mock everything?

Bruce Hayden said...

I think that one of the big problems with the SATs is that they can be successfully gamed and prepped for. And, as a result, there is apparently a socioeconomic component. Maybe less now than when I took them some 45 years ago, but it was clearly there when my kid took them 40 years later. Not that they did badly, because all that money we paid for private schooling and SAT classes paid off.

I was never a fan of the essay portion of the test (which my kid had to take, but I didn't). As evidenced by the criticisms of that portion of the test, it is/was highly subjective, which somewhat defeats the purpose of a supposedly objective test of scholastic aptitude.

As an example, maybe, of how these standardized tests can be gamed, I took the GMAT (for business school) a week after I took the LSAT, after having taken an LSAT, but not a GMAT, prep course. At that time, the LSAT was scored based on the percentage correct minus a percentage wrong (if I remember correctly). What that meant was that if you got a 5 way question down to 3 way (or 4 way down to 3 way), for the LSAT, it was advantageous to randomly guess. On the GMAT though, every wrong answer was subtracted from number of correct answers (or something like that), so it never paid to randomly, or even otherwise, guess. So, in the LSAT prep course, we practiced guessing. And, it seemed to work, with my score around the 99% level. But, my GMAT score was closer to the 80% level, not having prepped for it, but probably having taken some of my (counterproductive) LSAT training into the GMAT. Not surprisingly then, maybe, I got an MBA almost a decade before I received a JD.

Bruce Hayden said...

Let me add that part of the problem with the essay portion of the SAT is that it somewhat tested high school training, and not real aptitude. So, it was more an achievement test, than an aptitude test.

One of the things that I really liked sending my kid to a good private school is how hard they pushed writing. And, given the additional resources available, the kids got a lot more individual attention in this area than even many of the public schools can provide. Plus, the writing training starts a lot younger - maybe around 4th grade, so that by the time the kids are graduating from high school, almost all of them are quite proficient. And, do correspondingly well on the essay portion of the SAT. It didn't hurt them in either the essay or the verbal portion of the SAT that they also had explicit vocabulary training and testing all the way through until graduation.

The point there is that the students graduating from better private schools and the best public schools have a distinct advantage when it comes to the SATs, and the advantage is probably most obvious in the essay portion. This is a triumph of training over real aptitude, and as a result, gives significant advantage to those who can afford either private school or to live in areas with top public schools (but ignores that home schoolers can sometimes do even better).

Biff said...

Back in the Stone Age, I took the Achievement Test in English Composition, before the College Board either dropped it, started calling it the SAT Subject Test, or merged it with the regular SAT test. (I don't know what they actually did with it.)

At the time, they reported the individual scores that each judge gave to each major essay, with scores ranging from 1 (bad) to 5 (excellent). For each of my major essays, the scores were mixes of ones and fives, with nothing in between.

On the one hand, I'm happy that the most subjective part of the SAT is being dropped, but on the other, the wildly divergent scores I received on those essays some thirty years ago have stuck with me as a valuable learning experience for how the world works.

Michael K said...

I took the SAT in 1956. The high school I attended, a Catholic school that is now 100% black had a modest college prep program. Now, it has a much higher percentage of college attendees (Are you listening Crack ?). We were told we were taking a test and marched down to the study hall. We had no prep and to this day I do not know what my score was. It was good enough to make me a national merit school, one of 100 that year.

The SAT has been dumbed down repeatedly the past 25 years. In 1960, I took the MCAT for medical school application. To this day, I don't know what my score was there. I did get accepted the following December.

Michael K said...

"scholar" Damn the autocorrect.

David said...

The New Yorker article is entertaining for a while and then turns weird.

The writer's conclusory paragraph:

Whatever is at the center of the SAT—call it aptitude or assessment or assiduousness or ambition—the exam at this point represents an accident. It was conceived for one purpose, adapted for another, and somewhere along the line it acquired a hold on American life that nobody ever intended. It’s not just high-school seniors who are in its thrall; colleges are, too. How do you know how good a school is? Well, by the SAT scores of the students it accepts. (A couple of years ago, the dean of admissions at Claremont McKenna College was forced to resign after it was revealed that he had inflated students’ scores to boost the school’s ranking.) As befits an exam named for itself, the SAT measures those skills—and really only those skills—necessary for the SATs.

Problem is, this is not what she was writing about. The assertion may or may not be correct, but she didn't examine that topic. She mainly examined the craziness of the test preparation process.

David said...

Michael, I bet you really were a National Merit School.

"I contain multitudes . . . "

Even at this remote time and place that is impressive.

(I do love posts like this because all of the Althouse Multitude Smarty Pants get to flash a little leg.

I do not exempt myself from the category.

Why, when I took the SAT, I mmmffffffbbsspftt.

Sorry, my wife put a pillow over my face.)

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Bruce Hayden,

One of the changes they've made is to remove the "guessing penalty." I don't see why. Explaining to your class that you ought to guess if you don't know the right answer, but can eliminate one or more wrong ones, is the work of a moment. What's to practice?

I took the SAT after doing a few timed practice exams out of one of those easily-available prep books, and did very well on it. I took the GRE four years later with no prep whatsoever, and did better on it.

Freeman Hunt said...

I am happy about the changes. I thought the addition of the essay was a silly gimmick.

Biff, might you be talking abou the AP Composition exam?

Freeman Hunt said...

They should bring analogies back.

Joe said...

My SAT story:

I signed up for it because everyone in my high school did: few people back east went to western schools and took the ACT. Soon before the test, I realized that I didn't need to take it. I decided to do so anyway and see how fast I could take it without random guessing. I finished long before everyone and smiled as I walked out to their stunned faces. Got a very average score, though.

(For the record, my ACT scores were very good.)

gpm said...

I guessed immediately that Michael K was referring to Leo. I grew up about a mile and a half from there, on the South Side of Chicago, in a world much closer to his, but about fifteen years later, in the midst of a very sad transition of the whole area. I recall walking by Leo many times on the way to the movie theater (the Capitol?) at 79th and Halsted.

I have many issues with the Catholic Church, but I owe it both my basic education and where I presently am in the world. Leo is a rebuke to those who would view the church as a force of evil in the world. The story's more complicated than his post indicates (e.g., the graduating class now is a fraction of what it was in his day), but the school is an amazing resource in what is now a very desolate area, serving a student body that includes few, if any, Catholics.

My own Catholic/Jesuit high school, to which I really owe my present place in the world, was located elsewhere in Chicago and has fared better, but it also offered and still offers educational opportunities to a student body that includes a good chunk of non-Catholic blacks from the South and West Sides that are not otherwise available.


The Godfather said...

I took the DC bar exam in 1968, and much of it was essay. I thought that was great, because a lawyer should be able to discuss anything intelligently (that's another way of saying a lawyer should be a good bull-shitter). I passed, of course.

In 2004, having retired to Florida, I decided to take the Florida bar exam because I thought I might want to do some pro bono legal work in retirement (you can't waive into the Florida bar). There were essay questions on the Florida bar exam, but we were taught in the bar review course that the graders don't actually read the essays -- they don't have time. For each question they look for certain key terms, and they better find them at the beginning of the essay, because they don't have time to go all the way through. We were told to underline the key terms we used, so they wouldn't be missed. I don't know if that's true, but it sure sounds truthy. I passed that bar exam, too, but with no pride.

Michael K said...

A cousin took the California Dental Board exam years ago. He told me that there were questions on obsolete techniques that are (or were) taught in California schools. It was one way of keeping those snow birds out. The Florida bar was probably similar.

Yes, it was Leo. In those days the brothers would walk around in the evening in cassocks. It was an Irish Catholic neighborhood.

The graduating class is much smaller but probably has more college accepts than in my day with a much larger class. It was 96% a couple of years ago.

virgil xenophon said...

Well, I'm with Michael K here. I graduated HS in '62 (the year before avg SAT peaked in '63) and grew up in the radio, not tv era and attended a Univ. Lab school as the son of two college professors, so had several built-in advantages. I scored a 1600 on the old, non dumbed-down test and also garnered a Nat. Merit Scholarship.. I also took the "writing sample", (as it was called then, iirc) as well.
One funny aside: As a result of my scores I was designated an "Illinois State Scholar" and have the proud unique privilege of having hanging on my wall a framed certificate to that effect signed by no less than a convicted felon, none other than Gov Otto J. Kerner (of the "Kerner Commission" a Brigadier General (ret) and a Federal judge jailed for taking kickbacks from Arlington Race Track in Chicago)

That our educational system is a total failure may be seen by the fact that SAT averages have been in free-fall ever since they peaked in 1963. Defenders of the SAT claim this is simply because more of the "underclass" are taking the exam, thus pulling the averages down and therefore there is nothing wrong with the basic structure of our educational system, But if this were so the absolute numbers of those garnering a perfect score would continue upward unabated, propelled by population growth even as the averages collapsed. But this has not happened, rather, the absolute numbers of perfect scores have collapsed as well, strongly suggesting it is the failures of the basic educational structure itself that is at fault.

virgil xenophon said...

*** "...failures are at fault."

Anonymous said...

Its great they're finally making these changes. But its not soon enough. I will probably be giving the SAT this year and it is by far the most boring test I have ever had to prepare for. All it does is hinder creativity!

Wince said...

A study by an instructor at M.I.T. has shown that success on the SAT essay is closely correlated with length: the more words pile up, the higher the score. When, at Advantage Testing, Stier is shown essays that have received top marks, she is horrified. They are, she writes, “terrible.”

I'd guess this alleged bias would advantage female test takers.

John Lynch said...

Got a 1400 on the old SAT. Big deal- it just showed I was good at taking tests. Still am. Doesn't translate to anything else. I think I dropped out of college three times before I finally got my degree- which I don't need for my job.

Academic norms should not be societal norms.

Peter said...

"I think that one of the big problems with the SATs is that they can be successfully gamed and prepped for. And, as a result, there is apparently a socioeconomic component."

I've heard this for years, and no doubt there's a correlation.

Nonetheless, "prep" need not consist of costly prep courses, or even expensive software.

At least, my prep consisted of a $10. paperback. It discussed methods to "game" the exam, and provided sample tests with answer keys. Although if I hadn't had the $10. for the book, copies were available in libraries- so long as you took it out well in advance of the first exam of the season.

The most valuable prep from this was learning to pace myself so I'd reach the end of the exam. Aside from that, there was familiarity with the types of questions I'd see.

So why am I writing this? Because stories on this invariably imply that one must spend $100.s on prep courses when that just isn't so.

Yes, prepping will improve your performance. But there's no need to spend a lot of money on it.

Angle-Dyne, Servant of Ugliness said...

Freeman Hunt: They should bring analogies back.

Absolutely. How do I know this? Because analogies are a true test of intelligence. How do I know this? 'Cause I always killed on that section, so, obviously.

Michael K: I took the SAT in 1956. ...We had no prep and to this day I do not know what my score was. It was good enough to make me a national merit school, one of 100 that year.

Impressive. It's my understanding that the older the SAT test, the better a proxy for IQ it was. Wasn't this really the whole point of the exercise - an objective as possible measure of aptitude? Now, I believe the official line is that the "A" in SAT no longer stands for anything.

stlcdr said...

Not having taken an SAT test, but studied it in comparison with European tests (back in the early 80's) I can't see how the SAT is a measure of anything useful. Sure, there's a correlation: in the same way that someone with a wad of cash doesn't indicate how they came by it, or their suitability for a given task.

If everyone has an A, does it actually mean anything? Since, you know, like, most people are average. Are too many students thinking they are exceptional, get to late 20's with a kid or two, working a minimum wage job, and thinking it's not fair?

Essays should not be optional. Tests need time limits, and should only be able to be completed accurately and correctly by those who are exceptional.

After several hundred (thousands) of years teaching our offspring, the last people we want teaching kids are educational establishments.