College Board: The SAT–A Square Peg Being Forced into a Round Hole?

The SAT, a test from the Educational Testing Service, measures a person’s ability to solve multiple choice puzzle-type questions (click here for an example) within a fixed time period. The problem is that this skill is not used in the bulk of college work.

The SAT has been found to correlate with first-year college grades. But psychologist Claude Steele pointed out that the test has been found to measure only about 18 percent of the things that it takes to do well in school, and thus is not a very good predictor of how a student will do in college. “The SAT is not going to get you very far with predicting who’s going to do well in college,” he told FRONTLINE.

This skill at solving puzzles within a timed context is not a focus in daily schooling or closely related to college study. The academic tasks of college are (in general):

  • to be attentive to schedules to arrive at the proper class at the right time as well as ensure that long-term projects are completed by the deadline date,
  • to coordinate the activities of non-academic student life with academic responsibilities,
  • to possess the academic background to understand the coursework (for example, knowledge of pre-calculus to progress to college calculus),
  • to behave appropriately in the class: listen to a lecture, ask questions of the instructor, write notes,
  • to be able to study without prompting from others,
  • to write term papers, in grammatically correct English, on an assigned topic,
  • to complete a end of course examination-more likely in essay format.

None of these tasks are related to the SAT’s puzzle-type questions. Also, according to The National Center for Fair & Open Testing (fairtest.org), the test is designed to be separate from high school curricula, the foundation for college study.

A direct descendant of the racist anti-immigrant Army Mental Tests of the 1920s, the SAT was first administered in 1926 but did not become a largely multiple-choice exam until after World War II. The test is designed to be independent of high school curricula (unlike the SAT’s main competitor, the ACT). It includes questions attempting to measure reading comprehension, vocabulary, basic writing techniques, algebra, geometry, statistics and probability. The SAT does not include advanced mathematics topics nor does it attempt to assess higher-order thinking or reasoning skills.

In order to train the skill of solving the SAT’s puzzles, there are SAT preparation courses. These preparation courses provide the training for students to learn how to answer SAT questions. Students who are not able to afford preparation courses will be at a distinct disadvantage to those who are thoroughly trained for the SAT’s method of asking questions.

Overall, the SAT’s testing methodology is being forced into the college admissions process where it does not belong. [Note: Fairtest.org addresses this issue in its SAT Factsheet.]

Because of my concerns about the SAT, I have a link to the excellent work of The National Center for Fair & Open Testing (fairtest.org) in the blogroll.

Post Script:

There has been discussion on whether preparation courses are necessary to help a student increase the student’s score on the SAT.

A Cornell Daily Sun editorial supported the deemphasis of the SAT I in Cornell’s admissions because of the advantage available to those who can afford the SAT preparation courses .

We support Cornell’s decision to de-emphasize the importance of the SAT I, particularly because it innately favors candidates from higher incomes who can afford tutoring, and is not a good indicator of one’s academic achievement.

A College Board executive, Laurence Bunin, senior vice president for operations, disagreed with the editorial’s assertion in a letter to the editor, stating that students do not need the preparation courses to prepare for the SAT.

Your editorial states that the SAT “favors candidates from higher incomes who can afford tutoring.” That statement is both wrong and misleading. The SAT cannot be “cracked” or “gamed” with expensive, short-term test prep courses. Research proves that these courses do not improve scores more than the free and low-cost practice tests available online or in bookstores. Expensive test prep courses only serve to give affluent parents and students the illusion of [control] over a scary process. In fact, the best preparation for the SATs is developing good study habits, taking rigorous high school courses and becoming familiar with the SAT by taking sample practice tests.

The editorial also incorrectly states that the SAT is “… not a good indicator of one’s academic achievement.” In fact, dozens of independent research studies prove that the SAT, along with high school grades, is the best single predictor of success in college.

However, Glenn Elert, author of The SAT: Aptitude or Demographics, states that a Federal Trade Commission study demonstrated that scores can be increased through coaching.

In 1976, the Federal Trade Commission responded to ETS’ long standing wish for a government investigation of the coaching schools. Their claim was that the aptitude the SAT measured was acquired over years — promises of significant results (over 100 points) in six weeks were false advertising. In Effects of Coaching on Scholastic Aptitude Test Scores the College Board reported that:

Despite variable factors from one study to another, the net result across all studies is that score gains directly attributable to coaching amount, on the average, to fewer than 10 points — a difference of such small magnitude… that it is unreasonable to expect it to affect college admissions decisions. The magnitude of the gains resulting from coaching vary slightly, but they are always small regardless of the coaching method used or the differences in the students coached.

Unfortunately for ETS, the plan backfired. The test preparation schools were not cited with fraudulent advertising — ETS was. The initial FTC report found that coaching courses, on the average, raised scores more than 100 points on both the verbal and math sections. “Contrary to [the] explicit claims of ETS/CEEB,” said Albert Kramer Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, “coaching can be effective…”

I disagree with Mr. Bunin because of the SAT’s reliance on puzzle-type questions. Mere preparation with a few old SAT tests will not do unless one is also trained in how to recognize what the test-maker is looking for in a particular test question.

For example, I do not believe that merely studying hard in school or taking practice SAT exams by oneself, as Mr. Bunin suggests, would necessarily allow a student to solve a question like this.

For more information:

PBS.org-Frontline’s “Secrets of the SAT” program

The National Center for Fair & Open Testing

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