Everyone who has ever gone to public high school has heard of the SAT. The test that is the precursor for admissions to almost every college or university is getting a huge overhaul in the spring of 2016 and I, for one, am grateful.
The SAT has been around since 1926. It is hardly the only standardized test, but it is the one that so many are faced with. The multiple choice questions that fill the test have required students to memorize words and definitions, many that they will never retain. In 2005, the SAT added an essay and students all over have struggled with it. Les Perelman, director of writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, made a startling point when he told the New York Times, “When is there a situation in either college or life when you’re asked to write on demand about something you’ve never once thought about? I’ve never gotten an email from a boss saying: ‘Is failure necessary for success? Get back to me in 25 minutes?’” Frankly, neither have I. “But that,” Perelman said, is what the SAT does.”
As a university English teacher, this is concerning to me. I don’t teach the very first level of English, but many of my students matriculate into the more advanced English classes I teach, some of them based solely on the strength of their SAT scores. Some of the writing (not to mention spelling) that I have come across is actually comparable to what my 7th grader does. Since it is a public university, the administration does not accept students based on their high school grades, and we are left with class determinations based on standardized tests. It could be argued that if senior high school students were free to spend more time studying for their actual grades rather than the importance of a one-time test, more might actually be learned. Not only that, but wealthier families can afford courses specifically designed for the SAT, while lower-income families could not; this seems to be a sore disadvantage for the latter. Wake Forest University also took this view and made the SAT optional for their admissions. Higher GPAs started showing up on school applications, as students who desired to go to Wake Forest focused more on their actual classes. Joseph A. Soars, professor of sociology, said that he was happy about the larger number of students. “We have a lot more social, racial and lifestyle diversity,” he said. “You see it on campus. Wake Forest was a little too much like a J. Crew catalog before we went test-optional.”
What Has Changed?
The change in the SAT is actually significant and, in my opinion, much more efficient. Sections that students read and are asked questions about will be mostly historical documents such as the Declaration of Independence, or Gettysburg Address. The questions will be framed differently, and the essay will now be optional.
While there is always room to grow in any new academic policy, I will be profoundly interested in the success of the new SAT. Students, I feel, need not only more of an equal opportunity for testing, but to actually be learning, rather than just spouting memorized words and statistics. It is every teacher’s hope to work with the best part of the student and recognize them for what they can do—how will we know their accurate abilities if they are based on a test that seems mostly made for human repetition?
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