Thursday, March 20, 2014

Assessing The SAT Changes

I know a little about standardized tests.  Over the years I have taken the PSAT, the SAT, the ACT, the LSAT, a Bar Exam (including the multi-state portion) and the CPA exam.  I can't say it was ever an enjoyable experience but I understand the necessity of standardized examinations.  Some objective method is necessary to put everyone on the same plane to determine the relative capability and preparedness of people from various locations and locales.

It is a bit like the NCAA basketball tournament or the U.S Open golf tournament.  You might think you    are hot stuff in your own world but how do you stack up on the same court or the same course with others that are outside your immediate orbit?

All of this came to mind as I saw that the College Board announced last week that it is introducing a new SAT due in the spring of 2016.  The stated reason for the change in the test's components is to more accurately track what students learn in school and to focus more tightly on a few key concepts.

David Coleman, the President of the College Board, explained it this way.

"It is time to admit that the SAT and ACT have become far too disconnected from the work of our high schools.  We aim to offer worthy challenge, not artificial obstacles".

Part of the change also clearly relates to concern by the College Board on the growing business in expensive test-prep courses that some say provides an advantage to students from more affluent backgrounds.  They argue that the SAT has outlived its usefulness and it no longer can be relied on to predict future college success (if it ever did).

I thought that was an interesting comment especially considering what I know about the history of the SAT.

The SAT gained real credence beginning in the early 1930's when James B. Conant (interesting tidbit-when I was in the 6th grade in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, I attended James B. Conant Elementary School), the President of Harvard, initiated a new scholarship program for academically gifted boys who did not attend the Eastern boarding schools which were the traditional pipeline to the Ivy League. He wanted to reach out for overlooked talent who did not have the advantages of the well-heeled prepsters.

Conant was looking for those students in places such as Nebraska or Mississippi or Idaho who had the raw ability to compete at Harvard even though they might not have had access to a quality high school education.  He liked the SAT because he thought it measured pure intelligence rather than what was taught (or not taught) in a particular high school.  That is why the SAT originally was the acronym for "Scholastic Aptitude Test".  It later became the Scholastic Assessment Test and it now is marketed simply as the SAT with no indication whether it is testing for aptitude or assessment.

Of course, the only reason the SAT (or any other standardized test) should be given consideration is if it  can assist in separating the wheat from the chaff.  How do I determine which student is better prepared for college and beyond-the "A" student from the Choate School, Chillicothe, Ohio or South Central LA?  Can it reliably predict college success?

The SAT seems to be making the changes in its testing concepts because more and more colleges (and students and parents) question that underlying principle. In fact, the SAT has consistently lost ground compared to the ACT in the college admissions testing space where the ACT now is the more popular test.  I would like to think that all the SAT changes are about getting a better answer to my question above but I can't help but wonder if this chart ( and the money from all those potential test takers) is also a major motivating factor in the College Board's decision.

In doing my research on the SAT issue I also came across what I thought was a most  interesting factoid involving the question of college preparedness.

U.S. Department of Education statistics show that between 1972 and 2009 low-income high school graduates who immediately enrolled in college increased from 23% to 55%.  However, their overall college graduation rate (by age 24) only increased from 7% to 8%.

This tells me that there are many high school students today who are ill-prepared for college but are attending anyway.  A large part of the reason is much greater access to grants, scholarships and student loans.  Especially, student loans.  However, as I have written before, is all of this money being thrown at these kids in their best long-term interest?  See "Student Debt Disaster" and "Degrees in Debt" and "Will History Be Kind To Millennials?"

If the SAT changes will assist in improving the ability of colleges (and students) to better assess the potential of someone to be successful in college it will be a very positive change.  If it is being changed due to the competitive pressures of the ACT and the almighty dollar we should be concerned.  Along these lines I found this comment from Villanova University professor Edward Fierros on the changes to the SAT to be a little troubling where he cites the coming demographic shift in college-age students over the next few years.

"Colleges and universities are mindful of this demographic shift in college-going students, and are expanding and adapting their admissions requirements to accept students that may not have the 'required' SAT or ACT scores,” he says.

This map shows the projected change in high school graduates between 2008-9 and 2019-20.  Most states will be experiencing a decline in high school graduates thereby putting increased pressure on colleges to put people in their seats to pay tuition.

Credit:Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education

Is the new SAT test change we can believe in or is it just another example of the dumbing down of America?  I hope for the former but I fear the latter.

1 comment:

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