Friday, March 07, 2014

new changes to the SAT!

An ex-coworker of mine recently informed me that the SAT will be changing format, and that the changes will be rolled out in 2016. This CNN article has some specifics:

The SAT college exam will undergo sweeping changes on what's tested, how it's scored and how students can prepare, College Board President and CEO David Coleman said Wednesday.

Standardized tests have become "far too disconnected from the work of our high schools," Coleman said at an event in Austin, Texas. They're too stressful for students, too filled with mystery and "tricks" to raise scores and aren't necessarily creating more college-ready students, he said.

The SAT to be released in spring 2016 is designed to change that, he said.

The test will include three sections -- evidence-based reading and writing, math and an optional essay -- each retooled to stop students from simply filling a bubble on the test sheet.

"No longer will it be good enough to focus on tricks and trying to eliminate answer choices," Coleman said. "We are not interested in students just picking an answer, but justifying their answers."

The test will shift from its current score scale of 2400 back to 1600, with a separate score for the essay. No longer will test takers be penalized for choosing incorrect answers.

I have no idea what that last part is supposed to mean, but I welcome the shift back to a 1600 scale. Hooray for the old school! OK, well, that's not entirely true: I think I do have some notion of what the "not penalized for wrong answers" paradigm means. If it's like the AP Calculus test, the point of the new test will be more about methodology—a student's thinking process, etc.—than about final results. On the AP Calculus test, it was possible to arrive at the wrong answer but still receive credit for having used a solid method.

As my colleague noted, this is going to mean an overhaul of all the tutoring materials at YB, my previous place of work. I wonder whether all the YB tutors will have to take the new SAT themselves so they can know what it's like from the inside.

One observation. David Coleman's remark that standardized tests have become "far too disconnected from the work of our high schools" seems to put the cart before the horse: in my opinion, it's the work of our high schools that keeps students from rising to the standards of standardized tests. Curricula keep getting dumbed down. The best example of this problem that I can think of is grammar knowledge: the current SAT is grammar-heavy, and students who have no notion of subject-verb agreement, tense control, faulty comparisons, pronoun shift, dangling/misplaced modifiers, etc., do miserably on the Writing portion of the SAT because they've been given no explicit background in grammar.

This trend away from teaching grammar as an explicit set of rules has been going on for several decades. In the language-teaching field, we see this quite clearly: grammar charts are disappearing in favor of "contextualized" utterances and vague notions like "communicative competence." The emphasis is on dialogues and on simply getting the students to talk, whether their utterances are correct or not. The very notion of correctness, any sort of correctness, seems to be going out the window. My own feeling—going back to the old school—is that teaching explicit linguistic rules provides students with the bricks and mortar they need to construct competent utterances that convey their thoughts in a clear and rational way. This in turn has the advantage of creating disciplined minds that more coolly and carefully apprehend reality, and it counteracts the tendency, in this Internet-driven age, for young minds to become unfocused and easily distracted.

The move away from the explicit teaching of grammar has been a huge mistake, and our kids are paying for it. I wonder whether the new SAT will reflect a concurrent dumbing-down of standardized tests commensurate with the continued dumbing-down of the American educational curriculum, or whether it will remain rigorous, but in a different way from what we've seen up to now.

UPDATE: The College Board website has this to say about "no penalty for wrong answers":


The redesigned SAT will remove the penalty for wrong answers. Students will earn points for the questions they answer correctly. This move to rights-only scoring encourages students to give the best answer they have to every problem.

Not quite what I had in mind, but OK.


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