Imagining a Replacement for the SAT and ACT

Ben Paris thinks California could make a better test. Here's how.

June 1, 2020
 
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The University of California’s recent decision to phase out the SAT and ACT came with an intriguing possibility: the creation of a new test that would be more meaningful and fair. It’s far from clear that a California-specific test will ever be developed. Having a patchwork of tests around the country might not be an improvement. It seems at least as likely that the test makers will change their tests to make California happy. It’s happened before, with the SAT in 2005. Or maybe these tests will be abolished, in which case any rituals of mourning would surely be drowned out by celebrations not seen since that house from Kansas landed on that witch in Oz. (Ding, dong, the test is dead!) In any case, it’s worth considering what should replace the SAT and ACT if this plan moves forward.

For many people, the obvious answer to this question is “nothing.” For them, replacing the SAT and ACT with another test would be like replacing a malignant tumor with another tumor, or making a sequel to Gigli, or planning yet another family vacation. It would take a true optimist to think that these tests would be replaced by something that would be well received. But I’m up for the challenge.

I’ll make two arguments for the notion that these tests should exist at all. First, we need some kind of common measuring stick to check grade inflation. If almost half of students have A averages, then high grades mean little, except as a requirement. Now, good grades don’t help you get in as much as bad grades keep you out. As a result, students have an incentive not to take risks and load up on courses that don’t interest them because “colleges like those courses” and because Advanced Placement courses typically provide an automatic grade point average boost. Wouldn’t high school be better if the millions of students who don’t want to take calculus and AP Chemistry instead took rigorous courses that interest them? A standardized test could give people who don’t sign up for that rat race a different way to show that they will succeed in college.

Second, a standardized test could provide useful information in the admissions process by measuring skills that aren’t measured very well in a typical high school experience. One of the complaints about the current tests is that “tests plus grades” aren’t much better predictors than grades alone, but why should they be when tests and grades are designed to measure the same things? The ACT is designed to cover skills taught in a typical high school curriculum, and the SAT is an enforcement mechanism for the Common Core. Should we also use college entrance exams to measure those same skills? If we measured other skills, we might uncover excellent potential students who weren’t all that motivated by the compliance and punishment models of their high schools but nevertheless would thrive in more engaging educational environments.

This argument, I’ll concede, is in complete opposition to the process that got us the current SAT. Before 2016, the fact that the skills required by the SAT weren’t always the ones taught in high school was considered to be a problem. I viewed this disconnect as a strength, partially because there’s no reason why college shouldn’t be different, and also because my view of the typical high school experience. If our most prestigious colleges are full of students who thrive in an unengaging test of endurance, is that a good thing?

The real question here is whether we think college should be like high school. If it’s just four more years of worksheets and drowning in busywork, then maybe testing the same skills makes sense. College would then replicate high school, but with less parental supervision and higher price tags. But if college is supposed to be qualitatively different, perhaps being better at engaging higher-order thinking skills, then a change is in order. And that brings me to my first recommendation.

Test Critical Thinking

Among the skills neglected in high school but crucial thereafter is critical thinking, loosely defined as the ability to identify relevant issues and questions, spot assumptions, analyze the persuasiveness of arguments, and draw logical conclusions. Any job that doesn’t require these things won’t remain a job for long, but these skills are rarely tested by the SAT and ACT. We could fix that, and while some believe that these skills cannot be measured by standardized tests, the Law School Admission Test and the Graduate Management Admission Test do a pretty good job testing these skills in a reliable way. Simply putting similar questions into the SAT and ACT would make both tests better. Or we could adjust them for the high school audience. In any case, surely some move in this direction is justified. After all, what’s more important, the ability to do exactly what you’re told or the ability to think for yourself?

Make Math Into Two Tiers

The SAT is half math. Isn’t that excessive for one high school class that most people want to abandon as soon as possible? Let’s grant that math is important, and that there are many fundamental quantitative concepts that are important no matter where your career takes you. Everyone should have at least some understanding of concepts such as averages, ratios and percents. Much of higher math, in contrast, is required for many careers but irrelevant for the vast majority of people. So why are we testing everyone on everything? Wouldn’t it be better to have a two-tier system, much as the SAT subject tests do, that allows people who aren’t interested in math to demonstrate practical skills while sparing them concepts that they find irrelevant and uninteresting? Those interested in advanced quantitative study (and by 11th grade, they surely know who they are) can sign up for a version that allows them to demonstrate their readiness. But why measure everyone on content relevant for only a small minority?

If the objection to this approach is that it would mean less focus on math as it is usually taught, I have two responses: 1) good and 2) let’s replace it with something better. What would we lose if we had less drill and kill? Algebra 2 is a special offender in this regard. Although I can make a case for the relevance of some content, such as logarithms, dragging everyone through matrix multiplication is a crime against education. Yes, less than 1 percent of people might have to use this skill later, but forcing everyone to memorize seemingly arbitrary procedures on pain of losing points helps to explain why so many people hate math. And if we didn’t force everyone to drink from a fire hose of content, think about what else we could do. We could use math to design experiments, make ethical arguments or plan businesses. Wouldn’t that be better?

Include an Unscored Essay

Hear me out on this one. Let’s concede that the history of essays on standardized tests is not encouraging. There’s not enough time to write something meaningful, it’s hard to come up with good topics that are fair to everyone, they take tremendous resources to grade and most students hate writing even under the best of circumstances. Oh, and the grades usually don’t mean much of anything. ACT essay scores range from zero to 12, but 63 percent of the essays score between 5 and 8. The SAT has a complicated scoring system and doesn’t release percentiles, and I think it’s because every writer who is at least competent gets about the same score.

Even so, some form of essay writing belongs on the test because this is essentially the only writing sample you’ll get from a proctored environment. Everything else could have been edited by someone else. And as flawed as they are, proctored essay tasks provide samples of the applicant’s actual writing, allowing admissions officers to see with their own eyes who can and can’t compose a coherent paragraph and potentially exposing applicants who don’t write their own admissions essays. You’d be amazed (maybe) at the number of good test takers who can’t write, and at the number of excellent writers who don’t do well on the rest of the test. So provide multiple prompts for the students to choose from and don’t score it because scoring is burdensome and close to useless. Admissions officers might not want to spend two minutes seeing if their applicants can write, but then that’s on them.

Keep the Relevant Skills

There’s a reason that reading comprehension is on basically every entrance exam: students need to understand what the authors are saying and how they build their arguments, and admissions officers need to know who is capable of digesting college-level reading. As a test prep tutor, I’m no longer surprised when students with straight A’s don’t understand what they’re reading as soon as their reading gets just a little complex. And at the risk of sounding even more like a cranky old man, I’ll tell you that you would be appalled to learn the kinds of vocabulary words that stymie today’s straight-A students. I’ll give you a hint: one of those words is “stymie.” Unless we expect the whole world to dumb down arguments to fit our needs, we need to take this issue seriously. We also need to defend grammar rules while there are still rules to defend. We’ve lost the battle over the meaning of “literally” and “unique,” but let’s not lose punctuation.

And finally, who could argue with the relevance of data interpretation? Drawing solid conclusions from quantitative data is more important than ever. ACT’s science reasoning section does an especially good job in this regard. To succeed, you need to take in unfamiliar material, not get intimidated, identify what it says, draw inferences and apply the scientific method, which is the best approach humanity has found for determining what’s actually true. If those skills aren’t relevant in a college, then it’s the college that’s the problem.

Promote Educational Equality

While we’re at it, let’s promote educational equality in other ways. A new test should reform the accommodations system to give every deserving student a shot at extra time. You shouldn’t be able to buy a diagnosis, and low-SES kids who really deserve extra time should have a shot. Let’s make sure there are enough official, released materials and free, high-quality preparation materials. And let’s send the message that this new test is not a test of intelligence or your worth as a human being. It measures skills that will help you in college and beyond, experiences that will be very different from the one you probably had in high school.

Bio

Ben Paris is a private tutor and learning designer with more than 25 years of experience in test preparation and educational assessment. He has designed test-preparation courses, trained hundreds of teachers and personally taught thousands of students how to succeed on standardized tests.

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