The 2016 SAT

We have just read about the proposed redesign of the 2016 SAT, something which seems to take place every 10 years or so, probably ever since the SAT’s official beginning some 90 years ago in 1926.

This is the test which as you all know, along with the ACT, begun later, in 1959, have together been the principal filters through which those teens who would attend a liberal arts college must successfully pass. The redesigned 2016 SAT would make several important changes —
•    eliminate all obscure and arcane vocabulary words, as well as the penalty for guessing incorrect answers,
•    include, in the reading and writing section, source documents from a broad range of disciplines, including science and social studies, as well as from the country’s founding text documents.
•    make the essay optional,
•    reinstate the 1,600 point scale,
•    simplify the math content, stressing depth rather than width,

Now this reform, as is true of most reforms, and not only those in education, comes in response to more and more complaints from students, parents, teachers and school administrators, and most importantly from the college admissions people themselves. But I would ask those behind the redesign, and most especially the 2016 SAT’s principal designer, David Coleman, if they really believe that the envisioned changes will lower if not eliminate the number of complaints?

Of course it won’t. No more than has anyone of the myriad reforms of our system of public education during the nearly 170 years since Massachusetts in 1852 passed the first compulsory school laws lessened even a bit the amount of dissatisfaction with our public schools felt during all those years.
Why is this? Because no series of reforms, no series of tests, no revised SAT, no matter how well reasoned and well applied they may be, will do anything to decrease the separation or distance between those who can and those who can’t.

Whereas income may be redistributed, from those who have to those who have not, much as Bill de Blasio would do in present day New York City, talent and ability cannot. The dissatisfaction of the many will still be there. For there will always be perhaps a majority of teenagers whose test results, rightly or wrongly, will leave them out of competitive college consideration. Although this is not to say that more deserving teens, separated now by poverty, can be found out there where they may  be presently overlooked, that more teens with promise can be helped if the schools and tests such as the SAT are better redesigned or reconfigured to find them and do so. But the many, no less deserving, will continue be left out.

Coleman’s motivation to redesign the test was not baseless, not without merit. He said he wanted to make the test reflect more closely what students actually did in their high school classes, much as the achievement tests presently do. On the surface that seems to make sense. Also, and perhaps even more important, Coleman wanted to rein in the intense coaching and tutoring on how to take the test that often gave affluent students an advantage.

Consider the following picture, taken from the same article in the Times Magazine. Now as they say, one picture is worth, how many? a thousand words?
Now if this is true, and I’m assuming it’s true, doesn’t that mean, or at least strongly imply, that the SAT is a test of family income more than of the knowledge of the test taker. David Coleman’s solution, or non solution, to this regrettable situation is to make test prep available to everyone. How would he do this? Well by means of close collaboration with Sal Khan’s Khan Academy, making available without cost the Academy’s thousands of online tutorials in hundreds of school subjects, thereby diminishing if not eliminating the present unseemly role of family income on test results.

But here also Coleman is probably up against an insurmountable obstacle. No one has yet found a way to lessen the inequality among us. Test results, school results, are much more the result of the way we are, separate one from another, different in multiple respects, than they are the result of curricula and tests and test preparation themselves, let alone the reform and redesign of such (now this is probably a good thing in that our very differences, the very things that make it so hard for us to learn and grow together, may one day account for our survival against even greater odds than those that the teenager encounters when taking the SAT).

There was another Coleman, James S. Coleman, who some 50 years ago came to a conclusion somewhat like, or at least similar to my own.  (Of course, my “own” may have come from him originally.) What he had to say at the time was made public in the now famous Coleman Report, commissioned by the United States Office of Education in accordance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Using data from over 600,000 students and teachers across the country, the Coleman researchers found that academic achievement was less related to the quality of a student’s school, and more related to the social composition of the school, the student’s sense of control of his environment and future, the verbal skills of teachers, and the student’s family background. He would have said that the student’s academic achievement was even less again related to the quality of the SAT.

Finally though, one has to admire David Coleman.  He was persuaded rightly, or wrongly as I believe, that the redesign of the SAT wasn’t just about the fairness and usefulness of an exam but about our nation’s ability to deliver opportunity for all, or in other words about the country’s soul. He would upgrade the SAT. The SAT will never be that. That’s what our elected government should be most about, how best to deliver opportunity for all.  If equality is ever a reasonable goal of our efforts it has to be equality of opportunity. No other equality would we ever be likely to achieve.

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