Worse Than You Think

The changes in the new SAT reflect a very different -- and questionable -- view of the qualities that are important for success in college, argues Ben Paris.

May 17, 2016

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.


Back to Top