Editorial: As the SAT changes again, colleges lose critical measures

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A military budget based on hope

IT’S THE NEWS that will launch a thousand test-preparation courses: The College Board is once again altering the SAT, the much-criticized college admissions exam that has struggled to defend its approach to student assessment. The SAT’s writers appear to be doing two things: changing what it tests; and making it easier. There’s reason for the former, and danger in the latter.

The SAT has had a rough several years, as critics have continued to charge that performance on the exam doesn’t predict college performance well, or much better than students’ socio-economic status does. Worse from the College Board’s perspective, no doubt, is that the SAT is now a less popular college entrance exam than the ACT, which used to be common in the center of the country and very rare on the West Coast and in the Northeast.

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As the test changes again, colleges lose critical measures.

So the College Board is conducting its second revamp in a decade. The writing section, which didn’t test many of the qualities of good argumentation, such as accuracy and correct use of source materials, will be optional, not mandatory. The exam will no longer expect students to know difficult, lesser-used vocabulary words. Advanced mathematical concepts will disappear from the exam, and it sounds as though some math sections will force students to do more raw computation in their heads rather than on calculators. The penalty for random guessing will also go.

The general idea, the SAT’s designers say, is to move the exam closer to what students actually learn in high school, rather than testing a set of skills that they and colleges might find less relevant. It’s no accident that this push comes from a College Board president who helped produce the K-12 Common Core standards, which aim to establish a national grade-school curriculum.

Integrating the SAT with what’s taught in class is a fine idea, particularly since the exam’s writers gave up on their claim to measure raw aptitude years ago. But making the exam easier in order to chase the ACT isn’t. It sounds as though students could conceivably get a perfect score on the new exam and yet struggle to fully comprehend some of the articles in this newspaper. Colleges should want to know if their would-be English majors are conversant in words more challenging than “synthesis,” or that their scores reflect more than lucky bubble guesses, now that wrong answers carry no penalty.

The SAT’s fiercest critics claim that the test is practically useless, reflecting little more than students’ socio-economic status. Grades alone are better predictors of college success, they argue. But grades can be misleading, too, since their value depends on the particular expectations of individual schools and even individual teachers. Colleges are right to want a common assessment in the mix as they evaluate applicants, including top inner-city students who might have spotless transcripts but few other ways to demonstrate that they’ve achieved as much as or more than other applicants at schools with better reputations.

No standardized test will be close to perfect. But a better approach would include a rigorous exam, or set of exams, linked tightly to the content and skills students claim to have learned, a system more akin to the Advanced Placement program than to the old SAT. From the sound of it, the new SAT won’t be that.

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