Sunday, January 20, 2013
This year alone, tens of millions of American high school students will take the SAT. Yet very few of them will ask themselves "why?". And of those who would ask themselves that fundamental question, most would probably answer "because colleges need me to". They wouldn't be wrong either. In today's America, that 4-digit number (and in some cases 3) that is a student's SAT score represents more than just an assessment of their academic abilities, it has become, far and wide, the deciding factor that determines admissions to the nation's top schools. The SAT has become a sort of vicious cycle actually: more and more colleges are becoming selective about admissions, so they demand higher SAT scores, and as a result students are pressured into preparing more and more to aim for higher scores, and because more and more students are earning higher scores, colleges become even more selective. The emphasis that colleges place on SAT scores serves only to perpetuate this cycle. But what's the problem with this, you ask? Doesn't this just teach our kids to be smarter, you ask? Well, really and truly, no. As highlighted in previous posts, the SAT is a flawed test that does not assess how "smart" students really are. Students should not be wasting their time and money preparing for a such a test, and what's worse is how commonly accepted it has become. Nobody even bothers to question whether or not there is anything wrong with the test because it has become such an integral part of the lives of every American teenager. If colleges didn't focus so much on how students scored on an exam that doesn't even work the way it should, then maybe they'd be able to get a much more accurate measure of prospective students and their true academic abilities.
By now, this blog may appear as more of a rant towards the SAT if anything. Rest assured though, all these posts are backed by purely objective evidence taken from various studies and resources. The underlying flaws of the SAT are real and not simply fabricated by stressed out teenagers who want to take a little of their anger out on the SAT. Back to the problems, though. Many critics argue that there is not only economic bias that plagues the SAT, but also cultural bias. One famous example of cultural bias in the SAT is the "oarsman-regatta" question. On SATs of years past, the short reading passage questions we have now were once analogy questions, asking students to understand a given analogy and then apply the same analogy to another set of terms. The particular question in this case was "runner is to marathon as ____ is to ____". The correct answer was "oarsman-regatta". When statisticians analyzed the results from the test, they found that 53% of white students answered correctly, while only 22% of black students answered correctly. The question itself assumes that students are familiar with the sport of rowing and are able to link an oarsman to a regatta as a runner is to a marathon. However, back in the day when this particular test was administered, rowing was a sport affiliated with the wealthy. Culturally and economically, black students were at a disadvantage here because they simply did not have the background knowledge that the question demanded of them. The SAT has taken steps to avoid these types of questions since, but there is a fine line between what should be expected as "common knowledge" and what might only be known by certain demographics. Because socioeconomic bias is such a prevalent issue in the SAT, it is hard to argue that the SAT is not a flawed test and does not need reform.
For many years, individuals have attempted to determine whether or not the SAT is influenced in any way by the economic statuses of the students who take it. Although CollegeBoard remains firm in their belief that the SAT is "uncoachable", the numbers say otherwise. Test score data from California has shown that test-takers with family incomes of less than $20,000 a year had a mean score of 1310 while test-takers with family incomes of over $200,000 had a mean score of 1715, a difference of 405 points. Further calculations have shown that there is an average of 40-points gained in SAT score for every $20,000 in income. Many attribute these statistics to the facts that families with more money simply have the time and capital to invest in test preparation, while students whose families do not have the resources to do so ultimately do not score as well as their wealthier counterparts. Herein lies another problem with the SAT: the fact that socioeconomic factors play into the success, or lack of success, students see in their results.
If you read the last post, you'd be familiar with our friend Dr. Perelman. His study on SAT essays not only focused on their lengths, but their content as well. While analyzing the lengths of the essays, Perelman also noticed factual errors in several essays. In one particular essay which scored a perfect 12, the writer explained that the American Civil War began with the firing of one shot at Fort Sumter. Almost anybody who has taken American History could tell you that the first battle of the Civil War did indeed occur at Fort Sumter, but it was started by an entire Confederate army bombarding the fort for days. When Perelman contacted CollegeBoard to inquire about these flaws in content, CollegeBoard responded by explaining how essays are graded based on the quality of the writing, and not the quality of the actual support making up the argument. The SAT, by CollegeBoard's definition, is a test designed to assess how well students are prepared for their first years in college and also how well they think. How can the test accurately assess such attributes when it's openly saying it's okay to just pull facts out of the air and ignore their legitimacy? How could a skill like that benefit a prospective college student in any way? Again, CollegeBoard had an answer for this, stating that the way students learn to write their SAT essays should not be the primary way through which they learn to write. If the SAT essay is not something students should be learning to write, then why in the world are students being forced to write it on the SAT? If the SAT wanted to be effective in assessing students, shouldn't it ask them to write they way they would for a real essay, and not just write essays that are as long as possible and crammed with made up facts?
In March of 2005, Dr. Les Perelman, a professor at MIT, conducted a study that ultimately exposed one of the fundamental flaws of the SAT. For many years, critics of the SAT have argued that the test does not assess students' true abilities in reading, math and writing. Dr. Perelman's study seemed to back this up. After analyzing countless essays, Perelman reached a conclusion that irrefutably linked long SAT essays to high scores. "If you just graded them based on length without ever reading them, you'd be right over 90 percent of the time. The shortest essays, typically 100 words, got the lowest grade of one. The longest, about 400 words, got the top grade of six. In between, there was virtually a direct match between length and grade." It's hard to argue that the SAT is an effective test when such flagrant flaws are present in the system through which it is scored.
Over the years, the SAT has become the bane of high school students across the country. However, things weren't always like this. The SAT used to be something you'd just walk in and take, with little to no prior preparation. Fast forward several decades though, and the SAT has become a grueling 3 hour and 45 minute test, spitting question after question at students whose fates will ultimately be determined by their scores on the test. Because the SAT has become such an integral part of every prospective high school student's life, it has spawned countless tutoring services and textbooks, which have in turn introduced a sort of socioeconomic factor into the test. Essentially, those who can afford to invest the time and capital into test preparation will succeed, while others who cannot will suffer from their disadvantages. In a cruel twist of irony, CollegeBoard reports that the SAT is "uncoachable", as if to make some sort of feeble attempt to put an end to the flagrant bias that plagues the test today. For students across America, the SAT has turned into a test that not only fails to assess their capabilities in academics, but also fails to compensate for the socioeconomic differences in its takers, which was it's initial purpose.