The SAT Casts a Shadow on American Education

Proficiency levels in basic subjects are at dismaying lows, and test-makers are fixing ... the tests.

Jordan Candler · Oct. 3, 2017

One metric colleges use (to a formerly greater extent) to determine a student’s academic ability is the SAT test. These scores not only help determine acceptance letters, they also provide a snapshot of trends in academic testing. In this regard, the trend is not good. Scores have been stagnant at best and lower overall.

This isn’t entirely surprising when considering other statistics. As economist Walter Williams has reported, “According to The Nation’s Report Card, only 37 percent of 12th-graders were proficient in reading in 2015, and just 25 percent were proficient in math. For black students, achievement levels were a disgrace. Nationally, 17 percent of black students scored proficient in reading, and 7 percent scored proficient in math. In some cities, such as Detroit, black academic proficiency is worse; among eighth-graders, only 4 percent were proficient in math, and only 7 percent were proficient in reading.”

It’s almost hard — if not impossible — to imagine SAT scores getting any better with such paltry literacy rates, like the ones above, absent significant overhauls. These would not include the overhauls made recently to the SAT, which appear to be creating unfounded optimism. According to The Washington Post’s Nick Anderson, “Last year, the College Board eliminated the notorious guessing penalty on the SAT, jettisoned some tricky vocabulary and took other steps, hoping to make the test a more straightforward measure of achievement. The board also returned the top score to the iconic number parents and grandparents remember: 1600. What resulted were apparently higher marks. But that doesn’t necessarily mean students are smarter.”

Unfortunately, this new method — which shows seemingly “improving” scores, though probably erroneously — is only part of a broader problem. Even if test scores rose dramatically in 2017, a comparison of past and present exam questions suggests that today’s students aren’t nearly as literate as previous generations. Researcher Annie Holmquist shows that while today’s SAT may provide a range of basic multiple choice questions, students in years past were compelled to be far more articulate.

“Consider the 1912 history exam from the College Board, the precursor to the modern SAT,” writes Holmquist. “It not only seeks written, essay-like answers, it also expects students to come prepared to draw on knowledge that they have learned beyond a textbook.” Holmquist opines, “It’s not hard to guess the type of outcry which would be raised if today’s students were expected to pass a test such as the above, which not only features difficult questions, but appears to give extra consideration to students who demonstrate ability to connect the dots of learning without being spoon-fed pre-formed answers.”

It’s not just scores that have changed, but the nature of testing as well. Both are demonstrable proof that our education system needs a significant revamping. And it’s as easy as getting back to our roots.

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