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.
Several weeks ago, I completed five bracing years in Washington, D.C., as president of the Association of American Universities. What have I learned about research universities and their place in American life? Three things stand out: undergraduate education, crucial to liberal democracy, is showing signs of getting better; federal regulation of universities, an issue to which I had previously paid little attention, is stifling and out of date; and big-time intercollegiate athletics, incredibly popular, are also incredibly perilous for universities, as their moral and physical hazards multiply rapidly.
If anything exhibits the essentiality of education to the maintenance of democracy, it is the current presidential campaign. Some candidates have succeeded with appeals to fear and base instincts, with misleading claims based on passion instead of evidence, with repudiation of reason and rationality, and with autocratic overtones. America needs citizens educated to think critically and independently, and trained to weigh arguments about complex subjects like energy and climate and tax policy against one another with some degree of sophistication.
What prepares citizens to carry out these essential tasks? A liberal education -- that is, in its original meaning, an education suited to produce free people. That is a far more important outcome for our country than the (very large) difference in career earnings between those who earn a college degree and those who don’t, the figure generally cited as the primary benefit offered by a degree.
It is encouraging, after years of neglect, to see many of our nation’s leading research universities giving high priority once more to the quality of education they offer to undergraduate students. Motivated partly by faculty ingenuity and concern, partly by parents’ complaints about shortcomings in their children’s education, public and private universities are spending a great deal of time, effort and money on freshman seminars; undergraduate research programs; curricular enhancement, including smart use of online materials; and learning analytics designed to produce more individualized teaching methods.
At AAU, for example, our five-year-old undergraduate STEM education initiative has built considerable momentum, thanks to the active participation of dozens of member universities. The project aims to improve the teaching of gateway courses in science and math -- precisely the freshman and sophomore classes that have traditionally turned off many would-be science majors before they really get started. Professors use evidence-based methods of teaching, such as group learning, problem solving, clickers, online tools and other means of increasing student engagement in the classroom. Good courses in chemistry, physics, math, computer science and the life sciences are crucial for students who will confront tough policy choices as adults in numerous domains calling for scientific literacy.
Science is just one part of a strong liberal education. Humanities and social sciences are also vital to enabling students to develop critical thinking, the ability to speak and write effectively, and the kind of collaborative skills needed in the workplace and in the public sector. Employers increasingly cite these skills as essential to their hiring needs, and life studies clearly reveal their contribution to personal satisfaction and fulfillment. Much more needs to be done to promote courses in the humanities, in particular, because the current zeitgeist heavily favors careerism: students are flocking to business and other practical majors in an effort to appeal to the job market. A longer view demonstrates the value of a broad education, as many studies have noted.
A Burdensome Regulatory Regime
Universities continue to put a premium on research, which has made American institutions the best in the world. But lagging federal investment over the past decade has threatened our pre-eminent position, as has a regulatory regime plagued by overlapping, duplicative, burdensome requirements that stifle faculty members and cost universities millions of dollars in unproductive legal and audit fees. The past five years have been remarkably frustrating for those of us trying to cut through this thicket: after taking initial steps to reduce and harmonize regulations early in its tenure, the Obama administration has made no further progress.
Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Representative Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) have developed legislation to address these issues. And the administration continues to discuss the possibility of further actions by the end of the year. We hope for progress, if not by January 2017 then in the next administration and Congress.
Another key regulatory domain for universities is accreditation, which not only is outmoded but threatens to taint our entire enterprise. Accreditation, which is intended to ensure the credibility of colleges and universities, fails to provide accountability for institutions that abuse students and government funds. Moreover, it subjects institutions to the same unproductive requirements whether they have superb or mediocre track records.
The process of accreditation rarely results in serious action of any kind. Recent cases of shockingly ineffective schools (mostly proprietary institutions) gaining reaccreditation in spite of glaring, even fraudulent practices, have drawn negative attention to our entire sector. They have fed the public perception that universities in general are unregulated, when in fact we are among the most regulated industries in America.
What can be done? At the least, the regional accrediting agencies need to institute differential accreditation based on past performance. They should not treat the Ohio State University and the University of Notre Dame the same way they treat institutions that leave most of their students with exceedingly high debt and no degree. And accreditors need to set a few indicators -- like graduation rates, student debt and default rates -- such that institutions falling below certain thresholds will be subject to greater scrutiny. If those institutions are found to be failing the interests of students and abusing taxpayer support, they should be put out of business.
An Out-of-Control Model
Finally, intercollegiate athletics. I played four years of college baseball and basketball (at the Division III level), and I am a fervent fan of college sports and the cohesiveness and community they engender among students, alumni, faculties and administrations. For excitement and aesthetic pleasure, they are unparalleled in American life. The public therefore wants more and more of them.
But big-time college sports are now out of institutional control, whether of the universities themselves or of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Recent scandals and court decisions make it clear that the model we know so well is cracking, probably irreparably.
What have university leaders done about this? Overwhelmed by the demands of millions of alumni and other fans, very little. Instead, they watch as “student-athletes” strike and appeal to the National Labor Relations Board, former players sue, wealthy lawyers go to court to argue that the NCAA violates antitrust laws, and judges are left to determine the future of intercollegiate athletics.
Looming over these legal exposures is the sheer scale of the money implicated in the enterprise. Some universities’ athletic programs bring in so much revenue they don’t know how to spend it. Recent competition for building the largest scoreboard at football stadiums is almost -- almost -- humorous in its lunacy. Other institutions can’t balance their athletic budgets in spite of tens of millions of dollars in revenue. Coaches’ salaries are an embarrassment: in most of the 50 states a university basketball or football coach is the most highly paid public employee -- by a wide margin. The vast amounts of money pouring into the National Basketball Association and National Football League can be condoned because they are professional businesses. But the hoards of cash falling into the laps of universities for completely nonacademic purposes compromise the extraordinary work they do in carrying out their academic missions.
What can be done about the tremendous vulnerabilities inherent in intercollegiate athletics? It is late in the day, perhaps too late, to stave off such developments as paying players or drastic solutions imposed by the courts. Only very serious internal reforms might save the enterprise. Universities need to consider downsizing across the board: the length of the season, coaches’ pay, skyboxes and scoreboards, athletic dorms, and the other monstrosities of the enterprise that now tarnishes campuses otherwise devoted to learning.
Will universities get off the tiger’s back on their own? I am not optimistic.
Hunter R. Rawlings III served as president of the Association of American Universities, an association of leading public and private research universities in the U.S. and Canada, from 2011 until April 25 of this year, when he became interim president of Cornell University. He is a former president of Cornell and of the University of Iowa.
In its infancy, online learning was viewed as a more accessible alternative for students unable to commit to the traditional higher education path. But in recent years online education has been gaining more acceptance. The most recent U.S. Department of Education data from fall 2014 indicate that 5.8 million students took at least one online course, with 2.85 million of them studying exclusively online. After thousands of online launches and millions of students, it is important to assess the advancement made in online learning as we look to further enhance online learning for future students.
Thirty years ago, we committed ourselves to a long-term program of research into higher education and how to improve it. Together, we have conducted several studies on student learning at colleges and universities.
Several factors emerged as determinants of students’ academic performance and related outcomes, such as retention, graduation, satisfaction and commitment toward their college or university. The four major predictors of student learning outcomes were:
student engagement and involvement in a variety of activities aimed at different cognitive domains of learning;
student-faculty contact, including faculty members’ helpfulness and accessibility -- as manifested through the immediacy of feedback and a concern for students and their problems;
factors related to degree programs, including the integration and relevance of the various required and elective courses, as well as the quality of teaching focused on student learning and of academic advising; and
learning opportunities beyond traditional courses, including opportunities to engage in self-directed learning and address critical issues in the course.
In addition to our interest in advancing policy-based knowledge in higher education, we have held leadership positions at several colleges and universities and have been involved in pioneering distance and online learning programs. In 1996, we developed a vision for a new online university in which all functions (academic, support, services and administrative) were directly linked to the development of a comprehensive online learning environment. We named it the Robust Learning Model, and all components of the model were designed to:
enable systematic applications to all degree programs;
be relevant for many groups of learners -- including adult and mobile learners;
have a mechanism for accountability, transparency and quality assurance;
use resources efficiently aimed at affordable tuition;
develop a budget and resource-allocation plan based on projected enrollment growth and predefined quality improvements; and
demonstrate a verifiable attainment of learning outcomes for students for each degree program.
The pedagogy included a completely interactive threaded discussion that allowed students to interact and engage with faculty members as well as each other. For each course, we introduced problem-based learning through case studies and project-based learning through a signature assignment. Self-reflection was included as part of the course as well as through a required essay at the end of the course. And when it came to assessment, the RLM was, to our knowledge, the first attempt to align institutional learning outcomes, program learning outcomes and course learning outcomes.
In 1998, we founded Touro University International, an independent branch campus of Touro College New York, using the RLM approach to online learning. It became a separately accredited institution and an academic and financial success. (Sold in 2007, it was later renamed Trident University International.)
Then, in 2012, we rejoined Touro in a new role of turnaround management for a division that it opened in 2008 named Touro University Worldwide. In the past four years, we have implemented a more advanced version of the RLM, based on our past experience with it and cloud and mobile technology, as well as on new developments in our conceptual map for an online university.
Throughout our two decades of experience, we have continued to improve the comprehensive learner-focused model using continuous assessment, experimentation and tests of new ideas and innovations. What have we learned about the factors in the online learning environment that directly or indirectly affect students’ learning performance?
The major factor that consistently predicts successful performance outcomes is the student’s skill at learning to learn. By this we mean the student’s ability to persist in learning through an awareness of his or her learning needs, to effectively search for information and raise questions, to manage time to focus on learning, and to acquire or use support mechanisms to overcome challenges. Students with a high learning-to-learn ability will successfully prepare in advance how to progress and benefit from their learning experiences as well as persevere in finding the path to learning, despite adverse circumstances. We have continuously improved the learning model and the online learning environment by focusing pedagogy, faculty-student interactions, student-to-student interactions, self-reflection and the variety of learning strategies and activities to support students in their improvement of this ability.
Engagement in a variety of learning activities and assignments -- problem identification, problem solving, analytical tools, projects, reflective inquiry, discussions, critical thinking -- enhances learning outcomes when a component of self-assessment is added to each of those activities.
Engagement in a variety of learning activities and assignments improves learning outcomes when the feedback received from the professor and/or other learners is immediate (less than 24 hours), constructive, substantial and (in case of professor feedback) guides students in how to strengthen their learning efficacy.
The professor’s direct involvement in all facets of course development and management -- including design, instruction, meaningful and frequent interactions with the learners and assessment -- enhances student learning outcomes across all degree levels and programs. When the learning experience is divided (unbundled) among several segments, student learning outcomes are considerably lower. We have tried unbundling the learning process and have experimented with course developers and designers, teaching assistants, mentors, success coaches and a learning team, and we have always received inferior results compared to when a faculty member is fully involved in all facets of the course.
Periodic course assessment and improvement based on self-reflection and peers’ and previous students’ comments can boost student learning outcomes. The key is to explicitly examine, for all courses across the institution, what worked well and what did not work previously for the same course.
An eight-week session maximizes learning outcomes for adult learners (24 or older), compared to a four- or 12-week session. A 12-week session maximized learning outcomes for traditionally college-age students (23 or younger), compared to a four- or eight-week session.
With all other learning activities and assignments remaining the same, courses without a problem-based learning component have resulted in lower learning outcomes compared with courses that include it.
Similarly, courses without a project-based component, a threaded discussion or a self-reflective component result in lower learning outcomes compared with courses that include them.
Students who receive either professors’ or peers’ constructive feedback at least twice a week substantially outperform those who do not.
Students who perform mid-session self-assessment with the professor’s constructive feedback on that self-assessment outperform students who do not.
Students who submit their learning assignment ahead of the deadline outperform students who wait until the last minute.
Students who participate in precourse learning orientation activities (related to time planning, learning tips and a variety of supporting techniques) outperform students who do not.
Students with high levels of student-faculty or student-to-student interactions in threaded discussions outperform students with lower levels of interactive learning.
Students who received weekly tips directly from their professors encouraging them to take control of their learning activities outperform students who do not receive such tips. This finding led us to implement this practice as part of the threaded discussion.
Students who can relate the signature assignment as well as the capstone to their work environment outperform students who cannot.
Adding academic quality assurance -- staffed by an experienced senior faculty member who works collaboratively with all professors to study the lessons learned and implement the derived improvements into the online learning environment -- enhances student learning outcomes.
When comparing online students using our model with students taking the same course with the same professor under the traditional classroom model, online students outperform their face-to-face counterparts.
All the aforementioned factors that enhance learning outcomes also increase student retention rates as well as graduation rates, while reducing the time to degree across all degree levels and degree programs.
Of the various lessons that we have discussed in this piece, some are related to policy issues currently on the agenda of higher education and its future directions, such as MOOCs, competency-based education, the unbundling of the learning process and the like. Our lessons are based on the distinct learning model and web-based learning environment that we envisioned, developed and implemented -- and are important additions to the public discourse. That said, they are not intended to be the ultimate conclusion applied to all online learning environments, nor are they intended to end discussion of these important issues. As educators, it is our responsibility to continue to examine and improve how our students learn through online education.
Yoram Neumann is chief executive officer and university professor of business administration at Touro University Worldwide. Edith Neumann is provost and university professor of health sciences at Touro University Worldwide.
David Horowitz's campaign -- posters with names of students and professors backing Israel boycott -- condemned as intimidation and leads to students blocking car carrying president of San Diego State U.
Students and gay rights groups object to University of Utah plans to award an honorary degree to philanthropist with ties to anti-LGBT organizations. And university didn't win over critics by scrubbing her bio.