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March 12, 2014

“The SAT Is Not Fair”

by Anne Paddock

The cover story of the New York Times Magazine (March 9, 2014) was the SAT – the standardized test designed to put high school students on a level playing field when it comes to college admissions in the US. Written by Todd Balf, the article is humorously (but truthfully) titled “The SAT Is Hated By…All Of The Above” meaning the most widely used college admissions test is despised by “stressed-out students, frustrated educators, hamstrung admissions officers, and anxious parents.” Designed as a tool by which all students could be compared, the SAT doesn’t do what it was designed to do and is, in fact unfair because students have unequal access to two systems: education and test-prep.

To resolve the education component, school systems under fire created charter, magnet, college-prep, and alternative high schools but the SAT didn’t change so although these programs may be beneficial to students, the test designed to measure their aptitude doesn’t always match what they are learning in the classroom. Although the author points out the adoption of a core curriculum by all schools and a revised SAT would solve the problem, this is easier said than done because the states, teachers unions, and professional organizations have a hard time agreeing on anything and don’t want the federal government telling them what to do. On the other hand, the College Board (who administers the SAT) doesn’t want its cash cow (the SAT) to fall more out of favor, so revising the SAT to match a core curriculum is underway. But can this really be accomplished?

When I think of a test matching a curriculum, I think of AP where the test clearly matches a single subject AP course taken over one school year or the SAT Subject Tests which determines mastery in single subjects such as English Literature, Math I, Math II, Chemistry, and US History. Or, I think of the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum:  a two-year program in the junior and senior year of high school that includes six areas in the core curriculum with three courses taken at the standard level that last for one school year and three courses taken at the high level that last for two years. At the end of each course is a lengthy exam in which the student can score 1 – 7, with a score of 4 passing and 7 indicating mastery. Six classes, six tests – matched to the subject matter, unlike the SAT and ACT. But most students don’t have access or take AP courses, Subject Tests, or enroll in an IB program in the US.

Todd Balf, who wrote the article that is also referred to as “The Story Behind the SAT Overhaul” points out that the average SAT score of students with family income of less than $20,000 is 1,326 (out of a possible 2,400 points) compared to 1,714 for students with family income of more than $200,000. What is unclear is whether the discrepancy is due to the inequality of education or actual test preparation.

Families with greater wealth can afford to live in school districts with better schools and arguably provide their children with a stronger education. These families can also afford to enroll their children in expensive test prep courses or hire private tutors. Although the author reports test prep tools only raise the score by an average of 30 points (according to a study although people wouldn’t be crying foul if just 30 points were involved), I know of teens who raised their score by as much as 300 points by using expensive private tutors who teach them how to take the test. Most of these teens are not tutored on the subject matter – many have already benefited from being in a good school district or enrolled in a private school and therefore have a strong foundation; instead, the students are made familiar with the format of the test, scoring, and given tips – allowing the students to save time, work more strategically, and score higher. But in fairness, I have also seen teens score over 2,300 without outside assistance. All of which indicates there are three factors that affect the SAT test score: quality of education, access to test prep, and intelligence but only two factors – quality of education and access to test prep – that can be changed or improved by those involved in education.

After reading the article, many would conclude the US education system needs two essential components to work effectively and fairly: a well-rounded curriculum that also allows students to excel in areas of strength (i.e. the higher level courses of the IB) and standardized tests that match the course material (i.e. IB tests). However, it’s not just the Swiss that realized the importance of these two interrelated components when they created the IB, or the Swiss Matura in their own country. The Germans have the Arbitur and the French have the  Baccalauréat – all of which provide a way for students to be tested on what they have been taught and studied. So, why is the US so slow in adopting something that seems so obvious?

Years ago when I was looking at high schools in the northeast, I asked an admissions officer why so few private high schools offer the IB  – a well-respected program with standardized tests that match the curriculum and cannot be gamed. I was told that private schools already have a strong curriculum with high AP, Subject Test, and SAT scores and don’t need to change (but not everyone can afford a private school) and that these schools don’t want to pay or have a governing committee in Geneva tell them what to do when their system isn’t broken. Except, of course that everyone hates the SAT, arguably the most important standardized test score used to measure a student.

The SAT – a test “promoted as a tool to create a classless, Jeffersonian-style meritocracy” has in the words of Balf “evolved from a vehicle to encourage meritocracy to a reinforcement of privilege in American education.” To read the complete article by Todd Balf from the New York Times Magazine, click here.

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