- NC SAT results offer a mixed bag of test results.
- SAT content changes invalidate comparisons to earlier data.
- Other changes are intended to lessen discrimination, but is a test the right tool for doing so?
In late September, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction released results of student scores on SAT exams. What did we learn?
On first glance the news can be seen as mildly encouraging. More than 56,000 North Carolina students took the SAT exam. SAT scores for 2016 high school graduates from all schools increased by one point each in the critical reading (502) and math (508) portions of the exam. State gains on both of these parts eclipsed national performance in the same areas, which showed a 3-point drop in critical reading (494) and a 4-point decline in math (508). For more information on state test results see here.
SAT results are viewed as an important gauge of college readiness. For years, the SAT measured levels of literacy and writing, skills important to college success. Score swings have served to alert educators and policymakers to academic deficiencies and hopefully propel corrective actions. What doesn’t show up in SAT test results, however, are the recent changes made to the exam.
The changes have been driven in large part by David Coleman, the president of the College Board, the organization that developed and administered the SAT test. Coleman believed the way the SAT was structured discriminated against minorities and the disadvantaged. In response, Coleman changed the test.
Among other things, Coleman limited the SAT’s emphasis on vocabulary, increased the amount of time test-takers have per question, and made the essay optional. He also did away with the penalty for an incorrect answer. In addition, he made taking the test more convenient by offering fee waivers to low-income individuals and scheduling some exam dates during the week. In some states, the SAT was incorporated into state assessment testing
The biggest change of all was new content. Since the College Board was solidly behind Common Core State Standards and Common Core was being implemented in schools across the country, the new SAT signaled the arrival of Common Core assessment on a national scale.
Of all areas, the math section probably had the most significant changes. The new SAT emphasized conceptual understanding and required students to model real-world situations with complex formulas. Word problems are everywhere and students need to understand the broader and deeper concepts – more equations, definitions and math structures — associated with Common Core. With the changes came criticism common to the Common Core math standards.
Among the most frequent critiques is how math was sequenced. Common Core assumes that all students should learn what is essentially taught in Algebra II. In addition, the Common Core math basically relegates statistics, probability and discrete mathematics to the later grades.
The impact of the changes was real. First of all, the changes made it impossible to compare the latest SAT scores with previous years. The scores listed above are of students who were tested on the older test. Performance on the new SAT will be reported for the first time in 2017. None of the test results are from later than January 2016. Starting in 2017, an entire new string of scores will begin to develop that gauges progress, but of course those scores won’t be comparable to those of previous years.
However, changes were made for other reasons as well. According to Coleman, the changes are intended to “propel students toward college success,” particularly low-income students, first-generation college students, and minority students.
It sounds like Coleman wants the SAT test to be a solution to the problems he describes. Is it really possible for a test to be that vehicle?
We might also wonder if some of the changes were influenced by the fact that the SAT has been losing to the ACT for years in terms of the numbers of test takers and significance. In fact, in 2011, the ACT surpassed the SAT in total test takers. High school juniors are now required to take the ACT in North Carolina.
Clearly, the SAT has been sliding in numbers of test takers as well as the number of colleges that required the test for admission. The decision to incorporate more content from Common Core into the SAT may have been driven by the need to make the SAT more competitive with the ACT and to regain relevance, and ultimately improve the SAT’s market share.
Questions about the influence of the SAT in American education also emerge. In addition to conducting national exams, the College Board also assisted in the development of Common Core.
Before that, the College Board was also responsible for creating Advance Placement classes in subject areas that could be used by high school students for college credit.
Like many other states, North Carolina pays the College Board for developing AP exams. The increase in AP exams was intended to raise the quality of academic work and to motivate students to take more rigorous classes. While many parents and students like the emphasis on AP classes, there is by no means a consensus.
Real questions emerge about the wisdom of expanding AP classes to more students. Yale professor Robert Lichten writes of entire AP classes where not a single student passed an AP exam. Lichten has called the steady expansion of AP – fueled largely by statements from the College Board that said all students that score a minimum on the PSAT (Preliminary SAT exam) would benefit from AP classes, regardless of preparation or performance – a disaster.
However, Lichten’s warning has been largely ignored. According to Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the percentage of high school graduates taking AP courses increased from 18.9 percent in 2003 to 33.2 percent in 2014.[i] As a result, the College Board has reaped millions of dollars from these policies, even as state subsidies have sought to encourage AP classes. Such policies have bolstered the influence of the College Board. In addition, courses such as the new AP U.S. History framework have revealed the left-wing ideology of the College Board and the difficulty others have in seeking to remove bias from materials.
To sum up, we see SAT testing going on across the country. We have members of the College Board writing and developing Common Core State Standards – to serve as a gauge of “college readiness” — and funneling students to one of two national testing consortia. We also have the College Board taking millions of dollars from governments to develop AP courses for schools across the country (essentially eliminating the principle of local control), developing academic standards, assisting in the writing of textbooks, administering testing, and changing the rules to determine who will have access to college and who will succeed.
The College Board sounds like an educational monopoly, a promoter of a national curriculum, and an organization with an undue influence over American education. These are three things few parents would say are good for the nation.
So will College Board succeed in using the SAT to make the U.S. – in Coleman’s view – a less discriminating and more equitable society? Who knows? I ask: How is that possible using a test that by its very nature is designed to identify and draw distinctions between students and their abilities?
The SAT will continue to be used as a tool to gauge a student’s readiness for college. Recent actions by the College Board, however, reflect a conscious policy to not only measure college readiness but also to significantly influence who is admitted to college. Why it is a good thing to have those changes made by an organization that exercises monopoly power over much of American public education is a question that policymakers and parents ought to ask.
[i] The College Board is in a position to create a de facto national curriculum, author: Stanley Kurtz, op-ed Washington Post, Sept. 11, 2015