The threat to free speech on college campuses -- where intellectual foundations rest on open debate -- has become a crisis, although not the one commonly posited in public debate. Despite some very public protests, students do overwhelmingly favor free political speech. However, ironically, undergraduates -- the major beneficiaries of social media -- are actually the primary enemies of other forms of expression, in part because of the way conversation occurs on the platforms that they live on.
How young people armed with smartphones became so skeptical of expression and what to do about it is a fundamental challenge for higher education. The answer will be to change the discourse from what to allow to what to listen to.
When observers talk about expression on campuses, they commonly focus on the highly publicized, mistaken actions of administrators who, among other things, fail to prevent disruption of lectures or disinvite controversial speakers. There have indeed been several high-profile flashpoints that many people have pointed to as emblematic of the free speech dilemma on campuses. For example, in early April, protesters at the University of Pennsylvania prevented CIA Director John Brennan from finishing speaking, yelling “Drones Kill Kids” and “Black Lives Matter.” Journalists now have a routine graduation watch to see which speakers are disinvited due to concerns about student pressure.
However, with about 4,000 colleges and universities in America, almost any story can be told from the examples of a few institutions. To better understand the actual state of free expression in higher education, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Newseum Institute commissioned the Gallup Organization to conduct what is undoubtedly one of the most comprehensive surveys of college student attitudes toward our foundational freedoms. A total of 3,072 students from 32 four-year colleges were interviewed, and 2,031 adults also were surveyed to provide comparative data.
In our just released report, we find some encouraging news. Most college students (73 percent in our survey) actually are confident about the security of free speech, and even more (81 percent) believe that the free press is secure. Seventy-eight percent of college students believe their campuses should strive to create an open environment where they are exposed to many different types of speech and views. Seventy-two percent say that colleges should not restrict political speech even if it upsets or offends certain groups. Students at public and private universities hold these views in equal proportions.
Administrators and trustees, especially in moments of campus crisis, should know that some very solid, albeit sometimes quiet, majorities oppose limits on political speech on campus. They should be confident that making sure controversial speakers are not disrupted and inviting a range of speakers is not only the right thing to do but also what most of their students actually want. Mobilizing support for free political speech on college campuses may actually be easier than commonly assumed.
However, in this same survey, we found that today’s college students favor restrictions on free speech when it comes to slurs and language that is deliberately upsetting to some groups. Sixty-nine percent favor limitations on this kind of speech, while 63 percent support policies that restrict the wearing of costumes that stereotype particular groups. Notably, all student subgroups – including whites, men and Republicans -- support restrictions on slurs.
Other evidence reinforces the observation that students are most concerned about what they say about each other. In April, we gathered 50 current college student leaders and journalists at the Newseum to talk about issues around free speech to add some texture to the survey findings. The discussion, driven by the students, focused mostly on how students could balance speech and concerns about inclusivity and diversity. The students didn’t even mention speakers or graduation controversies. The actions of administrators hardly figured. Rather, these students -- the first generation raised on social media -- were most concerned with how honest efforts to debate serious ideas too often were accompanied by frequently anonymous speech that felt directly threatening, derogatory and hurtful.
Unfortunately, students appear to want to realize their desire to have a civil, inclusive conversation by imposing restrictions on speech that contravene the First Amendment. For example, students are divided on whether reporters can be prevented from covering protests or public gatherings because the press will be unfair (49 percent say yes), the protesters have the right to be left alone (48 percent), or the protesters want to tell their own stories on the internet or social media (44 percent). And 54 percent agree that their campus climate is such that some people are prevented from saying things that might offend others. They appear to be comfortable with that level of self-censorship.
Much of the problem in how students talk to each other has to do with social media. Of course, current students understand the positive aspects of social media: 88 percent agree that social media helps people effectively express their views and be heard, and nearly the same number (86 percent) believe that social media allows people to have more control to tell their story. African-American students are slightly stronger believers in social media, with 93 percent stating that digital platforms allow people to effectively express their views and 95 percent concurring that the new technologies allow people greater control over their story.
However, the group dubbed “digital natives” is also very unhappy about aspects of social media. Only 41 percent believe that the discussion on social media is usually civil, and 74 percent say that it is too easy to say things anonymously. African-American students are even less likely to describe dialogue on social media as civil (36 percent), and even more likely to think that anonymous comments are too common (80 percent).
Thus, the real challenge to free speech on campuses is that students seem unable or unwilling in critical instances to talk to each other, especially on the digital platforms that are closely associated with their identities. That has led them down the dangerous path of being too willing to endorse and even demand restrictions on the very speech they are trying to exercise in the service of their own ideas and causes. It is this system of informal censorship that is the most significant challenge to the idea that campuses might still be marketplaces of ideas.
What we need is an earnest effort to create civility and inclusivity that respects those basic guarantees. We should start where the problem is most obvious: anonymous social media. Of course, anonymous speech is protected speech and should not be censored. However, that does not mean that it has to be acknowledged.
Our message should be incessantly to everyone, starting with young people, that the superior solution on a campus (and in society) is not to try to censor anonymous speech but rather to ignore it. Students should not pay attention unless the author is willing to put a name on it. Our society still has enough social capital that a great amount of obnoxious speech will probably disappear if the author has to be listed to have an audience.
Of course, anonymous violent threats have to be investigated, but the generation that has been raised on the Internet should be taught that credibility and audience can only be gained with a name. Eventually, we should equate anonymity with hardcore pornography: something that our laws permit but which our society is not particularly proud of and which is not socially acceptable in a great many circumstances. Some people may be willing to say obnoxious things with their name displayed, but that is their right.
Over time, progress in fighting some forms of anonymity has been made. The comments section of many newspapers have gradually evolved to require names. Twitter has begun to offer verified accounts. Margaret Sullivan, as public editor of TheNew York Times, waged an important campaign against anonymous sourcing that was sometimes little more than gossip in what was known as the paper of record.
In addition, we should constantly try to highlight positive examples of how people discuss controversial issues with each other. For instance, the Newseum, in conjunction with the Knight Foundation, is sponsoring a project on civil discourse on college campuses. We will be recruiting student teams from across the country to tell, via video (a preferred medium for young people), how their institution handled a controversial issue in a manner that did not impinge on free expression.
Since the advent of the smartphone and social media, too often the adults have given up trying to teach students about conversation because they feel themselves to be digital imposters. However, the ability to manipulate a device should not be confused with comfort with the conversation it enables. The students are saying loudly and clearly that they do not like the tone of much of social conversation. But the atmosphere of informal censorship that seems to pervade many campuses does not align well with the purposes of higher education. By emphasizing what should be listened to and stressing positive examples of difficult conversations that do not impinge on free speech, we can achieve the ambition of campuses to be exemplars of free speech for our society.
Jeffrey Herbst is president and CEO of the Newseum, in Washington.
Credential innovation is a hot topic in higher education, from microcredentials to digital badges, from competency-based and clickable transcripts to stackable credentials. Case in point: to facilitate dialogue, Lumina Foundation launched the Connecting Credentials initiative to help shape the vision and align the work of some 80 co-sponsoring education, labor and business organizations (including Parchment, where one of us serves as CEO).
While numerous articles have been written (by Kevin Carey, Ryan Craig and others) and conferences held on credential innovation, for many people in academe the concepts are new, with an emerging vocabulary that includes both familiar and unfamiliar terminology. Of those terms, “stackable credentials” is perhaps the most commonly and differently used. In our view, it is also the most important concept in the broader discussion. The term itself is clever, invoking the image of Lego blocks and the metaphor of assembly. But assembly of what? With what linkages?
The most common description of stackable credentials goes something like this: over a lifetime of learning, individuals can assemble, or stack, a series of traditional degree-based and/or nontraditional credentials -- certificates, certifications, licenses, badges, apprenticeships and more -- that recognize achievements and provide an accurate assessment of knowledge, skills and abilities. The more credentials learners accumulate and stack, the more they increase their currency in our knowledge economy, creating more direct pathways to better jobs and higher wages. While that narrative captures a number of key ideas, it glosses over important differences in what credentials are being stacked and why.
Stacking Credentials: Vertical, Horizontal and Value Added
Attainment of the four-year degree has increasingly become the primary focus of higher education, as evidenced by the shift of many two-year institutions toward transfer-friendly programs for learners whose final aspirations are a bachelor’s degree. At the same time, the longer history of community colleges, as well as many land-grant and technical four-year institutions, has been to provide educational programs and credentials tied to occupational fields at the certificate level, tied to a certification or, at the associate level, with a tight vocational focus. Those distinct types of educational programs and pathways have given rise to distinct forms of credential stacking.
In short, credentials can be stacked in many ways. We think the best framework is vertical, horizontal and value added, although we are not sure who actually coined these terms. (Will the master builder please step forward?) Most citations go back to Salt Lake City Community College.
Vertical Stacking. The original and more traditional version of credential stacking, vertical stacking, thinks about credentials in a hierarchy -- with one level building on another, enabling the learner to progress toward a higher degree. For example, a high school graduate earns an associate degree with a specialty, followed by a four-degree in a selected industry, like engineering, and finally an M.B.A. in preparation for a corporate upper-management position.
Vertical stacking is driven by the social forces at play in what Burning Glass Technologies calls the credentials gap: the difference between the education levels of currently employed workers and those employers are demanding for new hires. According to Burning Glass, an increasing number of jobs that nondegree holders historically filled now require degrees. For example, 65 percent of postings for executive secretaries and executive assistants now call for a bachelor’s degree, while only 19 percent of those currently employed in these roles have a B.A.
Horizontal Stacking. With horizontal stacking, the level of the credential is less important than the subject matter. Learners expand their subject matter expertise by earning credentials in related fields that, collectively, prepare each person for a specific type of job. Unlike vertical stacking, there is no explicit ordinal ranking or prerequisites, although some credentials may build on others.
For example, many highly skilled, highly sought after and highly compensated IT professionals don’t follow a traditional baccalaureate path, stacking degrees vertically. Instead, they build a series of nondegree certificates and certifications horizontally across an occupational field. A learner could earn a CompTIA certificate, Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert certificate and Cisco Certified Network Associate certificate with the goal of broadening his or her skills as a systems administrator or analyst.
Value-Added Stacking. Combining the concepts of vertical and horizontal credential stacking, value-added stacking is when a learner adds an area of expertise to an existing two- or four-year degree with shorter-term credentials to prepare for a specific type of job. In South Carolina, for instance, many of today’s health care professionals follow this path. A learner could add patient care technician and phlebotomy certificates to an associate degree or supplement a bachelor’s degree in health management with an information services certificate -- all leading to a position as a medical office administrator.
Why Stackable Credentials Are Worth Defining
Increasingly, Americans are earning many kinds of credentials to improve their position in the labor market. In 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 46.3 million adults (aged 18 and over) held a professional certification or license, and 19.1 million held an educational certificate. So while Burning Glass is right that a degree still matters, as research by the Georgetown Center for Workforce Development demonstrates, nondegree credentials can have a significant impact on earnings as well.
On average, says the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, high school graduates receive a 20 percent wage premium with a certificate. And certificate holders, especially those in high-earning fields of study, do better than many with an associate or bachelor’s degree. For example, in computer and information services, male certificate holders have higher earnings than 72 percent of men with an associate degree and 54 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree. Women certificate holders in the field earn more than 75 percent of women with associate degrees and 64 percent of those with bachelor’s degrees.
At the center of credential innovation and its related lexicon are the learners and the pathways they take. Increasingly, the best advice we can give students is not simply to get the highest degree possible. Instead, we need to think clearly about occupational goals and the different ways credentials can enable access to the fields they aspire to enter.
Most learners will never know the term stackable credentials or recognize that what they’re doing when they earn follow-on credentials is stacking. Instead, the responsibility falls on higher education institutions to have a clear conception of the term as we work to make our programs truly stackable and help our learners turn more credentials into more opportunities.
Jimmie Williamson is president of South Carolina Technical College System, and Matthew Pittinsky is an assistant research professor at Arizona State University and CEO of Parchment Inc.
Islamophobia continues to grow in the United States, where 45 percent of the population holds negative perceptions about Muslims. The rise of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has helped fan the flames of America’s animosity towards Muslims, but it began well before his candidacy.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations reported that, between 2009 and 2010 alone, there was “a 50 percent rise in anti-Muslim vandalism, a 150 percent rise in Islamophobic rhetoric and a 300 percent rise in violence.” That, combined with increasing visibility of Muslim Americans, has unfortunately resulted in violence toward Muslim students.
For example, after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Muslim students studying in Boston reported avoiding areas surrounding the bombing site because of hate slurs and threats directed at them, especially toward women who wear the hijab. Nationally, Muslim students reported racist comments, microaggressions and discrimination on campuses, including being labeled as terrorists and physically assaulted by peers. Such assaults have intensified to killings, such as the murder of three college students near the University North Carolina at Chapel Hill in February 2015.
All of this has highlighted why colleges and universities must step forward and address the needs of Muslim students.
Frequently, campus services directed toward Muslim students operate through student affairs offices in conjunction with other departments, such as student development, diversity or multicultural offices, and international student offices. Depending on the context and available resources, institutions have generally approached the issue by building greater cultural awareness, initiating campuswide programs targeting Muslim students and training faculty and staff members to appreciate Muslim students’ religious and cultural identities.
A few institutions serve as good examples in their approach to Muslim students. Historically, most secular campuses avoided devoting significant resources to religious programs, especially non-Christian ones, but now many acknowledge the importance of students’ religious identities. Several are adopting the concept of religious pluralism to mend cultural and religious conflicts on their campuses. Collectively, student development offices, student affairs offices and student religious groups are uniting to encourage greater representation of all religions and advocating coexistence.
A case in point is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which renovated several of former chapels and Christian centers to better accommodate the 28 student religious organizations at the university. Officials there advocated for spaces welcoming all religious groups, encouraging interfaith interactions and dialogue. Accommodating prayer rooms on the campus has received positive feedback, but at first MIT lost some support from Christian students when it redesigned a popular chapel into an interfaith space. Christian students felt Muslim students were impeding on their turf when Muslim students attended in large numbers a Jummah (Friday prayer) service at the newly renovated spiritual center. Despite that initial pushback, however, the efforts have ultimately united student religious and cultural groups and made Muslim students feel more included than ever.
Azfar Anwar, an Islamic studies scholar, commented that, while structural changes are vital, it is “more about sitting down and understanding each other.” As Islamophobia grows nationally, interfaith efforts must flourish. Therefore, institutions must provide funds, locations and time for students to engage in interfaith dialogues.
Campuses also need to expand their services outside of faith-based activities. For many women who wear hijabs, for example, gym hours can be uncomfortable due to the extra attention they may draw because of their attire. While they do not feel limited in the activities they can do, they wish to exercise in a more comfortable environment.
Thus, after Muslim students approached Harvard University’s athletic facilities about the issue, the athletics department partnered with the university’s student affairs office to investigate services other female students found desirable. After considering requests, Harvard’s Muslim Student Association, the student affairs office and athletic facilities established special women-only gym hours. For Harvard, the initiative helped not only women wearing hijabs but all other women on the campus by creating a more welcoming environment.
Muslim students deal with visible societal discrimination, which can penetrate any campus atmosphere. As portrayals of Muslim violence and terror have echoed across the nation, Muslim students have struggled with how others perceive them. Some colleges and universities are now actively engaging guidance counselors to specifically support Muslim students combating these psychological challenges.
At George Washington University, the offices of diversity, student affairs and mental health services and the institution’s Muslim Students Association have partnered in supporting Muslim students stressed by harmful stereotypes and deconstructing those stereotypes. Together, they host discussions and workshops, encouraging all students to attend, where people learn how to handle harmful images, language and acts directed toward Muslim students. In addition, counselors offer free counseling specifically designed for Muslim students or any students dealing with issues related to their religious identity.
Safe Zones and Cultural Awareness
Most important, campuses need to develop safe zones and increase cultural awareness among faculty, staff and student populations and ensure a welcoming environment, not just for Muslim students, but for all.
Safe zones serve the purpose of providing students a location on the campus where they know they can truly be themselves without fear of judgment or discrimination. The establishment of safe zones has proved to be quite successful in providing Muslim students areas to explore their personal identities together, gather for cultural and religious events, and host educational and awareness programs regarding Islam.
“Having a safe space to pray, have religious talks or even just catch up with other Muslim students on campus created an amazing atmosphere for us students to feel comfortable in our own skin,” said Fatima Ahmed, a graduate student at the University of Chicago. In addition, Ahmed said, “this safe space allowed us to learn more about ourselves, who we were as students, Muslims or even just citizens in society. We learned how to better connect with other students and organizations on the campus, which proved to be a learning experience for everyone involved.” Such safe zones provide an escape for Muslim students, as for other underrepresented student groups, from what at times can be a stressful experience navigating the dominant campus culture.
In a recent study, Muslim students felt that few people outside of their religious communities understood their needs or how their religion might require them to adjust to their campuses in different ways than other students. “Being a Muslim woman who also wears a hijab has sometimes proved that people already have a judgment or an idea of the type of person I'm going to be like just by looking at me. There have been plenty of times where I have received negative comments or ignorant remarks,” said Ahmed. Thus, it’s important for institutions to train campus faculty and staff members and to develop collective knowledge on the distinct needs of Muslim students.
Colleges and universities, and their student affairs offices, should work to ensure that Muslim students can be as successful as possible. Through the establishment of safe zones and by increasing campus cultural awareness, institutions can not only become more welcoming of Muslim students but also encourage greater diversity in general. That added diversity brings a cultural depth to campuses and builds a greater sense of pluralism. In sum, positively welcoming Muslim students, and giving them opportunities to express their culture, provides benefits for all students.
Allen Kenneth Schaidle serves as an educational consultant and is pursuing an M.Sc. in education at the University of Oxford.
Protest over killing of three Muslim students in North Carolina
The new SAT has been administered for the first time, and it has come and gone without great incident. In time, this new test will be taken for granted, and few people will know or care that it ever was any different. Before that happens, though, it’s worth reflecting on the changes and what they tell us about the changing nature of education. Spoiler alert: the changes are pretty dramatic, and they reflect a very different view of the qualities that are important for success in college.
Of course, the SAT has never been the winner of any popularity contests. If teenagers had their way, it would have been abolished years ago. Even so, the new SAT is much more deserving of the scorn it will receive than its predecessors were. And it could even become dangerous if it plays a major role in changing our view of what college should be.
The Players and the Plan
Since 2012, the College Board, the creator of the SAT, has been led by David Coleman, who had previously been one of the chief architects of the Common Core curriculum. When he arrived at the College Board, Coleman felt that the SAT was “too disconnected from the work of our high schools.” That was a problem he set out to fix, and the new SAT is the product of that vision. Just as the curriculum sought to unite state standards, the new SAT brings the college admissions process into compliance with the Common Core.
In principle, that might sound reasonable. It would be unfair to make college admissions dependent on skills that were totally unrelated to high school classes. But that doesn’t mean that the SAT should be exactly like exams in high school. It’s at least arguable that the skills required in college are different, or at least that they should be. We expect more original work, more creativity and more initiative out of college students. We’ve all known people who struggled in the compliance/conformist approach typical of many high schools only to blossom in college when they finally get to shape their own experience. Are more tests of high school curricula the best way to give those people the chance to show that they can succeed?
In the past, the SAT was designed to be an alternative, to measure things that weren’t usually tested in high school. Questions were hard because they tested abstract reasoning skills and fairly creative problem solving. The people who designed those tests would therefore probably agree with Coleman’s claim that the SAT was disconnected from the high school curriculum. But they would say that this disconnect is a feature and not a bug.
Now, however, the tide has turned against tests of aptitude. Past revisions have brought the SAT closer to what is taught in schools, but Coleman’s SAT goes much farther in that direction. Now, the overarching idea is that the SAT should be testing what is taught in schools and that students should never have to do anything that they have never done before. But is that a good thing?
As we ask whether the SAT is measuring the right things, let’s consider issues of fairness and inequality as well. One of the important objections to the SAT has been that it is an unfair barrier for underprivileged students. One of the (dark) jokes of test preparation is that the influence of wealth on test scores is so prominent it would be easier to cancel all the tests and just submit the parents’ income taxes returns instead. While that joke exaggerates the influence of money on test scores, the ability of some to purchase test preparation services is a serious ethical issue.
The new SAT is, to some extent, a reaction to this kind of criticism. But does aligning the test with high school curricula tend to level the playing field or reinforce the pre-existing tilt of that playing field? Does the new SAT make test preparation less important, or more? To answer that question, let’s take a look at the important changes to the SAT and see whom it will reward and punish.
SAT Reading: Mourning the loss of “SAT Words”
The most widely publicized change to the SAT has to be the de-emphasis of vocabulary. Questions testing “SAT Words” are gone. While the new SAT has retained some vocabulary in context questions, those questions are among the easiest on the test. On a released test, some of the words test takers must define “in context” included everyday words such as “directly,” “form,” and “hold.” Whereas the old SAT struck fear in the hearts of those who preferred their reading at an ESPN level, the vocabulary questions on the new SAT shouldn’t scare anyone.
Why the change? Is it simply a matter of dumbing down the SAT? Not quite, but politics and marketing are part of the answer. Remember that the SAT is a product that no one has to take. The ACT is a perfectly reasonable alternative, and many colleges have opted out of requiring any such test at all. To survive, the SAT has to convince students to take it, and lately the SAT has been losing that battle to the ACT.
As a result, the SAT feels pressure to change the test in a way that will appeal to today’s students. You can see this in the elimination of the much-hated wrong-answer penalty, the way percentiles are calculated and new yet confusing tables comparing ACT and SAT scores. What does this have to do with vocabulary? Quite a bit, really, because vocabulary questions have always been unpopular with students, and so the decision to do away with them is at least plausibly related to this unpopularity.
Marketing is definitely at play, but it isn’t the only factor. The College Board has a view of what skills should be tested to show readiness for college, and having a sophisticated vocabulary isn’t on that list anymore. The College Board thinks that the SAT should mirror the skills taught in high school, and nowadays that curriculum is more focused on being ready for the workforce and less about being able to handle ivory tower seminars on literary criticism. The College Board is telling us that these words don’t matter as much, and they’re using their power in college admissions to make their prediction a reality. After all, if the people who get into the most competitive colleges don’t need them, then those words really don’t matter, right?
In practice, however, vocabulary questions were among the best indicators of who would do well in college. That shouldn’t be a surprise. The only reasonable way to build your vocabulary is to read challenging texts, and the kids who did that tended to do really well in college. So vocabulary questions measured important things, and even better, they were less vulnerable to test preparation techniques than the rest of the test.
While critics would tell horror stories of people cramming SAT words in order to get an unfair edge, that was never really an issue. I know from years of SAT preparation that it is nearly impossible to dramatically improve your vocabulary in the short term unless you are willing to devote your life to this endeavor. The benefits of SAT word lists were never that great. Students with busy schedules (that is, all of them) were better off studying for other parts of the test. Now, though, tough vocabulary questions are gone, and that makes test preparation even more effective, which means it’s easier for people with more resources to do well. So instead of alleviating aspects of educational inequality, dumbing down the vocabulary actually makes things worse.
The rest of the reading test is fairly standard, except that it’s easier. It’s less time pressured, and the scoring is so forgiving that you can get pretty close to a middle score even if you know only one-third of the material.
Still, the test seems to have more questions that are vague, arbitrary or ambiguous. For example, one question that asks why certain facts are mentioned has one answer choice that says “offer an explanation” and another that says “support a conclusion.” But in this case, the conclusion and the explanation were basically the same thing, so what should you pick? The College Board wants you to pick the explanation choice, but there’s really nothing wrong with the conclusion choice.
Standardized tests have always had these issues, especially with reading questions. But now when I’m explaining SAT questions, I find myself explaining that the way to get the correct answer is to think the way the College Board thinks. And sometimes I can’t explain the correct answer at all. The math questions are better in this respect, but the issues there run deeper.
SAT Math: A Monument to Drill and Kill
The College Board tells us the new test focuses more on “the content that matters most for college readiness (rather than a vast array of concepts).” In practice, that means a lot of algebra and functions, and less geometry and arithmetic. The new test has much more content from Algebra 2, and even a little trigonometry. You can see the reasoning behind that: math matters, advances in STEM fields have promoted human flourishing and you need Algebra 2 for those fields.
But that doesn’t mean everyone should take Algebra 2, and it doesn’t mean skills in Algebra 2 should be so important in determining whether and where everyone goes to college. Let’s face it: for the vast majority of people, Algebra 2 is a painful slog through concepts they will never use again. Are we really sure that we want to force everyone to take the course in the first place? And even if we think students need to take it, should it be more important to their college admissions chances than other branches of math that have been downplayed in the new SAT? To function in society, you probably should have at least some understanding of averages, percentages, ratios and many other concepts, but the equation of a parabola probably doesn’t belong on that list.
The real objection to the changes in the math section, though, is not so much about what is tested but rather how it is tested. In the past, the hardest questions on the SAT were less a test of math skills and more a test of critical thinking skills. You still needed to know the math in order to answer the question, but you had to come up with nonobvious alternatives, spot assumptions and find logical shortcuts in order to get a great score. Those skills should be relevant to college success, right?
Some people don’t think so. They argue that students find these kinds of questions really frustrating, because you would have to solve problems that were different from any you had seen before. Of course the typical high school math experience nowadays is heavy on repetition and light on both exploration and critical thinking. As a result, SAT Math is now a relentless drill-and-kill exercise that is more of a test of endurance and patience than a test of true problem-solving ability. But in the real world, who is more valuable: the person who can solve the same problem over and over or the person who can analyze a new problem and figure it out without being told how to do it?
The College Board says students should be “rewarded” for their hard work learning “essential math skills.” Another way of seeing that is to conclude that the College Board wants uniform compliance with the Common Core vision of education -- not just in K-12, but beyond as well. If the selection process for college (and eventually, college itself) becomes more like high school, do we really think the world will be a better place?
Is There Anything Good About the New SAT?
It’s not all bad. The reading and writing sections now ask you to draw inferences from graphs. That’s an important skill that deserves to be tested. The math has a lot more reading in it, and that’s at least defensible, since translating between English and math is crucial for the application of math concepts. The College Board’s partnership with Khan Academy is a really nice development. People need high-quality, low-cost practice with official materials. So it could be worse.
Why Is the College Board Doing This?
The new SAT is not a nefarious plot to ruin education. The College Board honestly believes the new SAT is a better test than the old one. The Common Core is all about consistency, and so if you are a true believer in the Common Core, then you probably believe that this vision of education should extend into college admissions as well.
It’s also important to acknowledge that the Common Core arose in response to real problems. Today, too many students arrive at college unprepared for college work, and they drop out in great numbers and with heavy debts. Tests that measure those fundamental skills are legitimate parts of the college admissions process.
However, that doesn’t mean the Common Core is the best articulation of those fundamental skills, and it doesn’t mean skills outside of those fundamentals should be ignored entirely. College should be more than an extension of high school, and it would be an indictment of our education system if the skills required to succeed in college were merely the same as those required for high school success.
The first round of data suggests that the new SAT does predict success in the first year of college. In a sense, that’s good news, because if that weren’t true, then the SAT would clearly be a dismal failure. But there’s another way to look at it: given that the new SAT is a drill-and-kill slog of compliance, maybe the concern shouldn’t be that it won’t predict college success, but rather that it will.
Ben Paris has more than 20 years of experience in test preparation and educational assessment, designing test preparation courses for leading companies as well as training programs to help improve the quality of test questions. He has published dozens of test prep books, trained hundreds of teachers and taught thousands of students how to succeed on standardized tests.