TORONTO -- David Coleman, president of the College Board, was fairly general here Thursday in describing the changes coming to the SAT. His theme was that the new SAT would be more closely tied to high school and college curriculums and less coachable than is the current version. And he said that, however much the current SAT can be improved, "I think the SAT is the best current test there is."
But in his remarks at the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, he seemed most comfortable in predicting big changes for the essay portion of the test. He admitted that there are serious flaws in the test now (namely that test-takers are not rewarded for being factual and that in fact a common strategy for students to do well is to ignore the facts). Further, he floated a specific idea for changing the essay. (He was not specific in describing most other changes.)
Coleman asked attendees to imagine replacing the current essay (in which students respond to a prompt) with a writing assignment in which students analyze information. "What if you were analyzing a source" in a short essay "and using evidence from that source?" he asked. Might such an essay prompt "celebrate analytic writing?"
He said that he was bothered by the status quo, where the essay "does not grade you on the correctness of what you write." And he described feeling somewhat ashamed when he spoke to a friend who taught SAT test-prep in Hong Kong when she told him how she helped students who asked about how to come up with examples to back up their points in their essays on the SAT. "You make them up," she said.
In the decade since the College Board announced and then started giving the essay portion of the SAT, reaction has been decidedly mixed. College Board officials predicted that the addition of the writing test would send a message to high schools to take writing seriously.
But almost from the start, many writing experts questioned the kind of writing the College Board was promoting, saying that it emphasized using a few impressive words and paying little attention to facts or logic. A writing professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology famously coached students on how to write laughably untrue statements in SAT essays that would receive good grades from the College Board. Many colleges have pointedly not used the writing scores of the SAT.
Until Coleman became president of the College Board last year, however, officials there have defended the essay.
Coleman didn't focus on the issue in his prepared remarks, but did so when urged by Jon Reider of San Francisco University High School to "get rid of the essay."
Reider said that the essay test has forced counselors like him to tell students to do things that are educationally unsound -- just so they can get a decent score on the essay.
He said that when smart students who are good writers talk to him about disappointing scores on the SAT writing test, he tells them that they are doing poorly because "you are a good English student and you've been taught to stop and think before you write, but that's not an asset on this test." Students improve their essays, he said, if they stop thinking -- and Reider said it is troublesome for educators to be advising students not to think or consider facts.
It's also wrong, Reider said, for the College Board to promote writing without any relationship to facts. "I challenge anyone in the room: Have you ever sat down for professional purposes to write about a question you have never seen before, in which the accuracy of what you write is totally and utterly meaningless?"
Coleman's response to Reider was that "you've got a real point. You really do."
But Coleman cautioned that eliminating the essay, instead of fixing it, might send the wrong "message."
He did not dispute any of Reider's criticism, but said that "there may be alternatives beyond dropping it."
Redesigning the SAT
Coleman first announced plans to redesign the SAT in February.
Most of his comments here were consistent with the goals he announced previously for the shift -- that he wants to more closely align the SAT with the high school curriculum, for example. On Thursday, he took swipes at how the SAT has evolved, noting that the test has created a huge test-prep industry and that students aren't necessarily being encouraged to focus on important learning.
He noted that when someone says a person has just used "an SAT word," the idea isn't that the person has shown eloquence or clarity but that "they have used a word they would never use again."
Coleman also talked about how a better SAT shouldn't be something one has to learn at a test-prep service. The revised SAT "shouldn't be a sudden departure" from what students learn in class, he said. A student's plan to take the SAT "should inspire excellence in the classroom."
One questioner (and a number of people in comments after the presentation) suggested that Coleman was describing a test more like the ACT, which has long claimed that it is more curricularly based than the SAT. And the ACT has gained substantially against the SAT in recent years in market share. Amid all these discussions, one questioner here, warning the audience to prepare to be shocked, said that he liked the current SAT, and feared the new SAT might be something like New Coke.
Coleman responded that "I'm not interested in a Coke/Pepsi kind of debate here." And he asserted that what he was talking about was a new kind of test, one that would promote educational values.
Another question -- from someone who used to work in admissions at an elite university -- highlighted how challenging that may be. The questioner said that his instructions at the university -- straight from the president's office -- were to increase average SAT scores and to increase minority enrollments. He said that he found it impossible to do both.
Coleman appeared to get a lot of points in the audience just for showing up. He is the first College Board president in the memory of NACAC leaders to attend the annual meeting and to do so in a way that invited questions. Several of those asking critical questions said that they noticed and were impressed by his willingness to be here.
And several spoke of practical matters on which the College Board has been frustrating. One high school counselor said that she tries to plan her school's academic calendar to avoid scheduling conflicts with various College Board tests and deadlines, and that she tries to brief parents on when not to schedule vacations and so forth. To applause, this counselor said "your timing is poor.... You are the last company in the world to provide the test dates for the next year. We as counselors do not get enough information."
Coleman's response was to pledge to improve. "We have not been good enough in the past," he said.