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The SAT is changing. It’s going digital, getting shorter and will use adaptive scoring, but the underlying content being tested isn’t expected to change much. Still, reading will be a bit different. The passages are going to get shorter, and they’ll be tied to a single question each. To some extent, this change is explained by the decision to go adaptive; it’s harder to build an adaptive test with long sequences of related questions. Even so, the real impetus behind the change is probably the decline in reading—a trend with disturbing consequences.

In my 25-plus years of experience in test preparation, reading comprehension has always been the least popular subject to study, and that’s saying a lot, given that math is one of the other candidates. Still, antipathy to reading is even worse now than it was when I began. People today, and especially young people, are less likely to read for pleasure, and the effects of this trend are apparent when you ask students to read and analyze texts of any reasonable complexity. They just do not have the experience to untangle complex language when they encounter it.

Warning Signs

As a tutor, I know a student is in trouble when I ask what they got from a passage and the response is “the passage talks about” followed by a list of terms that the student remembers being in there somewhere. If this list is given with great confidence, then I know the student thinks that a list of memorable terms really is a summary, which suggests that they never really learned how to pick out themes and analyze arguments. In the worst cases, the student will assemble terms they remember from the passage into some kind of random story that might be interesting but has nothing to do with what the passage actually said. And again, if they do this with great confidence, then I know that this “make up your own darn story” approach has never been corrected and might have been rewarded on the reading tests they’ve taken.

The problem is especially apparent when students encounter historical documents on the SAT. Mixed in with a literary passage, a social passage and two science passages (because, to the SAT, science is twice as important as anything else), the SAT includes a passage from what they call the “Great Global Conversation.” This could be an excerpt from a Lincoln speech, a commentary at the time of the American Revolution or a more modern piece. The recent PSAT used Margaret Chase Smith’s “Declaration of Conscience” speech from the McCarthy era. Overwhelmingly, current students find these passages impenetrable, and it’s not just an issue of vocabulary; they have real trouble with complex sentence structure and following nuanced arguments. To get students ready for the experience, I often walk them through Frederick Douglass’s epic speech “What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July?” They usually find it incomprehensible, but the real shock comes when I tell them that that this kind of speech was popular entertainment at the time.

Clearly, we have lost something. Sometimes I run into print advertisements from long ago that had more complex language than one finds in modern textbooks. To modern audiences, the vintage ads look ridiculous, but doesn’t that say something about us, too? Conversely, take a look at modern advertisements and shudder at the realization that they are created that way because they work. One of the best expressions of this problem comes from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, in which he compares the Lincoln-Douglas debates to the state of modern political discourse. And he was writing in 1985, when the medium that was most heavily influencing the content of thought was television. If anything, Postman’s argument has only gotten stronger in the internet age.

Is It Really Different Now?

Perhaps you find none of this persuasive. Throughout history, there’s been a steady supply of people who wail about the academic skills of the young. Nothing new there. Some students have always struggled with reading, so it should be no shock that some students today can’t handle complex material. So what’s the big deal? And how is this any different from what we’ve seen before?

I respect that kind of skepticism and I think we should be wary of doomsayers, but I still think that the modern predicament really is different. Two factors really scare me:

First, the people I tutor tend to be far above-average students with sparkling GPAs well over 4.0, thanks to the bonus points they get for taking honors and Advanced Placement classes. By these measures, they are among the best our system has to offer. If even these students can’t understand what they’re reading, what does that say about the average and below-average student?

Second, the system has lost its ability to self-correct. Now, when students can’t meet a standard, we change the standard. Check out the syllabus of typical English classes, even honors versions. You’ll see that they aren’t asked to read all that much. If you ask the teachers why, they’ll probably admit it’s a problem. They’ll explain, though, that you just can’t get kids to read nowadays, so they’re focusing on “close reading” of fewer and shorter works. Some will claim that the “close reading” approach is actually superior, but most recognize it as a workaround required by the rebellion against long reading assignments. Holding the line would involve failing too many people, and when school success is measured by graduation rates and the percentage of students going to college, standards will be sacrificed.

But what about when they get to college? Surely the lack of reading skills will catch up to them then? It depends on the college. I have seen students who aced high school crash and burn in college because they can’t keep up with the reading. Their “close reading” techniques don’t work as well when they have to read a few hundred pages per week per class. But most students don’t hit this wall, because college itself is adapting. Colleges get evaluated by graduation rates, and they can’t fail everyone who lacks reading skills—because there are too many of them. If you can’t do the reading, you’re in trouble. If the whole class can’t do the reading, the instructor is in trouble. And if the student body can’t do the reading, the reading assignments have to change. And that’s what’s happened.

This is the classic “too big to fail” problem we’ve seen in other contexts, and this is what happens when the interests of paying customers affect supposedly objective evaluations. For example, real estate assessors tend to say that a property is worth exactly the purchase price. If they don’t, people don’t use them. Another good example is martial arts training. In the early years of American martial arts, instructors were rare and had all the power. Over time, instructors became common, and customers would shop around for someone who would give them a black belt as quickly and easily as possible. Colleges that kept high standards lost students to colleges that handed out credentials like party favors. Black belts became common, but the credential itself lost meaning. Sound familiar?

Will Testing Be a Check Against Declining Reading Skills?

If the colleges insist on maintaining the illusion of competent reading skills, perhaps the tests will function as a check against lowered standards? In theory, they could, but nowadays the tests, like high schools and colleges, are driven by consumer culture. People pay to take the SAT, and if they don’t get what they want, they’ll move to competitors, such as the ACT, or simply not take a test at all. With so many schools going test optional, the SAT has to bend at least somewhat to the preferences of current students.

We’ve seen this before. While many people still think that the SAT tests hard vocabulary, it really doesn’t and hasn’t since 2016. Vocabulary-based questions were excellent for figuring out who had reading skill, because only well-read students would have encountered these difficult words enough times to retain them. SAT “word lists” helped a little, but not much. Analogy questions measured vocabulary and the ability to determine and recognize abstract relationships, an essential higher-order skill. But these vocabulary-based questions were politically unpopular, and so they were replaced in 2016, along with other questions that tested abstract reasoning skills instead of the exact skills taught in high school. Today’s SAT focuses on extremely literal comprehension and virtually ignores higher-order thinking skills. And that’s just as well for the SAT, because if it did measure those skills, the results wouldn’t be good, and fewer consumers would take the SAT.

In these ways and others, tests reflect trends in education yet must keep average scores roughly similar. That’s why SAT reading scores aren’t that different over time even though the test today is very different from the one the previous generation took. It’s not a coincidence. It’s a feature. The current test still has hard questions, but the hard questions require hyperliteral paraphrases of just a few lines. You don’t have to think deeply to get a perfect score on the SAT, but you do have to pick the choice that is the most straightforward paraphrase of exactly what the text says. And while literal comprehension belongs on the list of relevant reading skills, should it be the primary focus?

Like the decision to dumb down vocabulary, making SAT reading tests shorter will be popular. To date, the number of students who object to shorter passages on tests remains stubbornly at zero. But we might regret allowing people to get perfect SAT scores without demonstrating the ability to comprehend more than a few sentences in a row.

To take one more digression into martial arts (sorry, but this is a passion of mine), subpar students used to get a cold splash of reality when they competed in tournaments against students from better schools. But eventually, the McDojos stopped going to open tournaments and getting exposed. Their students would compete in internal tournaments only, where they were insulated against reality for a little longer by competing only against other poorly trained students. Sound familiar?

Eventually, with both fighting skill and academics, reality kicks in, but it takes a while, especially when people have an incentive to keep the illusion going. Putting our graduates at a profound disadvantage in the global marketplace will have consequences sooner or later. And those consequences aren’t limited to the working world. Think about the decline in the ability to critically analyze information, to decide what’s true and what’s false, to identify assumptions and counterarguments, and you’ll agree that the decline in reading isn’t just an education problem; it’s a moral problem, too. People who can’t understand information or evaluate factual claims are vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation, and democracy depends on having citizens who can understand complex information, think for themselves and make reasoned judgments.

What Would Be Better?

While this challenge is daunting, it isn’t impossible, especially if we harness the power of learning science, though doing so may require some changes to modern practice. We know that learning to read by the third grade is essential, because after that instruction flows through reading. So you need to learn to read before you read to learn. And while techniques for teaching early reading are not my core expertise, the research behind early intensive phonics instruction along with grammar, vocabulary and word root instruction sounds encouraging. What’s more, neglecting these basic measures to help students understand language has had consequences that aren’t limited to the classroom.

Still, the mechanics of reading aren’t enough. We have to engage students and help them find reading a pleasure and not a duty. The good news is that students’ natural curiosity and imagination are on our side. When students are inspired, their reading endurance has no limits. But when reading is a forced march through boring worksheets and uninspired leveled readers, students will tune out. And the solution to this isn’t handing out harsher punishments for failing to hand in mountains of meaningless busywork. Instead, let’s meet people where they are and encourage them by sharing the wonders of the written word.

Finally, while we’re getting this sorted, we need tests that measure the skills worth measuring instead of fooling ourselves with illusions of expertise. And while the digital SAT could be a step in that direction, it’s more likely that a disruptive new player will be needed to shake foundations that need shaking.

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