New SAT gets a failing grade - again

Revisions to the SAT do little to remedy problems of standardized testing

The Spectrum

A poor indicator of success in high school, of work ethic, of intelligence, of future performance in college - the SAT is all of the above.

For the second time in a decade, the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) has gone through an overhaul. Ironically, this second round of revisions undoes one of the largest changes made in 2005 - adding an essay and shifting the maximum score to 2,400 points.

The changes announced last week will do away with the essay, making it optional for students and bringing the maximum score back to 1,600. Additionally, College Board president David Coleman announced the revised test shifts the vocabulary tested to be more "relevant," makes the math section more in line with "the real world" and aligns the test with the Common Core standards.

The SAT is disliked across the board - by anxious high school students, critical teachers and disillusioned college students who wonder how it prepared them for college, save earning them an acceptance letter. Criticisms about the SAT, as it existed, have been common for generations.

But the changes to be implemented in 2016 offer a mixed bag.

The announcement has been met with a full spectrum of reactions - some lauding the shifts, others claiming they will make the test too easy and an expected revival of claims that the SAT is structurally inadequate as a measure of performance.

The revisions are not altogether beneficial or harmful; such sweeping generalizations are as unhelpful in thinking about the SATs as taking them.

When the SAT was introduced in 1926, then called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, it was purposely made to not align with curricula. The test was something more like an IQ test than a high school final exam. The code behind the test was quickly cracked, however, and classes and tutors arose charging hefty fees to desperate juniors dreaming of college acceptance.

Making the test more in line with high school curriculum was a necessary change. It recognizes the reality that students studying for an exam with roots in the education they are receiving is more worthwhile than stressing "test-taking skills" and obscure vocabulary.

What remains unaddressed, and is likely too difficult to change, is the strong correlation between family income and test performance. Logically, a student with parents who can afford expensive test prep and tutors will perform far better than a student who cannot pay for extensive preparations.

A test without roots in public school curricula magnifies these differences, but even this round of changes will fail to fully correct the disparity.

The most significant change, the loss of the required essay portion, is the most troublesome. Though we all dreaded the 25 minutes of writing purgatory before descending into the hellish domain of hundreds of multiple-choice questions, the essay was among the most worthwhile portions.

Writing remains among the most important skills a college entrant can hone in high school, and though the subject matter of SAT essays was humorous at best (or would have been if your entire future didn't ride on your response), the section should not be eliminated.

The announced change was more indicative of the College Board's attempts to give the fledgling SATs a facelift than trying to make meaningful changes. The essay deserved minor alterations, not complete eradication.

Though grade-point average remains a stronger predictor of college success than the SAT, this newest edition of the test will likely haunt future generations of college-bound high school students.

We are all too familiar with the spiraling doubts, fears and anxieties that emerge as soon as those bluish bubble sheets sit in front of us and we face a stern proctor from behind the back of our fellow standardized-test-takers' heads.

The question is, when we are sitting in class and taking a final exam, is that SAT prep from years before at all helpful?