SAT Schadenfreude: Is Nothing Sacred?

For years only three things were sure – death, taxes and the colossal power of the SAT to determine your destiny. Scores on a pair of test for verbal and math dexterity decided if you’d go to college or not, to a good school or a middling one, make the big bucks or slouch through life a loser.

That was the myth anyway. And paranoid parents would go to any lengths to get little Biff and Betty tops scores, springing for workbooks, prep course and even private SAT tutors. Of course if they’d made sure Biff and Betty read a book (without pictures) every week for the eleven years leading up to the SAT and practiced their math, all that prep and panic might not have been required.

But such was the power of the SAT that strong men quailed and doting mothers wept as it approached. Then in 2005, a crack in the façade. The folks at SAT suggested their test might not be perfect. All those little filled in dots might not adequately measure college aptitude or educational attainment, especially if the billion dollar test prep industry could teach Biff and Betty how to game the test in a few short weeks. So SAT revamped the test, most notably by adding an essay portion.

Consternation among the consumers. Even greater panic. Ye Gods, instead of merely blackening the inside of one of five circles with a #2 pencil, my future might come down to actually having to demonstrate the ability to organize and express thoughts and information through the medium of written English. Unfair! Extreme! Hard! Nobody told us there’d be writing involved in getting through high school and into college.

Now we learn the revised standard SAT has been a debacle. The essays have been stomach-turningly, humiliatingly bad, according to college admissions people and the cadre of graders hired to read them. Worse, the new SAT hasn’t proven any harder for the test prep industry and its affluent clients to manipulate. And it still only tests how well you can take the SAT, not what you learned in high school and doesn’t predict how you’ll do in college as well as your grades.

And once the Imperil SAT admitted it had no clothes on it lost its power to awe and terrify. Many schools have abandoned it for the competing ACT which tests students not just on generic verbal and math skills but on high school subject matter including science. So the SAT is now taken by slightly fewer students than the ACT.

As a result, the SAT folks and not their customers went into a tizzy and have done a desperate reboot, SAT 3.0. The essay is out. Writing is apparently no longer relevant or seeing how badly students do it is too painful to confront. Do U know what I mean or R U 2 stupid?

Hard vocabulary words are also out and test questions have been devised to include a nod to science and obscure historical texts like The Declaration of Independence (many written using those now banned hard words).

In short, the SAT has dumbed itself down so today’s generation won’t have to prove it can write or read material that is polysyllabic. It is claimed this is an attempt to adapt to the times. Well, it is — if that means pandering to win back customers from the competition. But it is unlikely to work. Once the wizard is revealed to be a humbug from Omaha, the jig is up. Fear made the SAT powerful. Now that the test is no longer magic, it can no longer terrify.

There’s a bit of schadenfreude in this for those who kowtowed so long before the SAT idol, but it doesn’t really help students figure out how to get into a good school or do well there. It would be nice if the conversation would shift from which test to take and how to outwit it to how to become better educated, but don’t count on it because the answers to that are, well, hard.

Read more. Write more. Do math and science, especially biological and computer science one would suppose. Foreign languages too. Chinese may be especially useful if our schools don’t improve. Learn about the history of the world and its arts, sciences, religions and beliefs without the school board imposing its politics on the curriculum. Hire good teachers and pay them well. Hold them to high standards. Same for the students. Will that happen? For the lucky or prosperous few, it always has. For the vast majority? Not so much.

Posted in Postmodern Times Tagged permalink

About Hayden Keith Monroe

I was born and raised in northern Ohio and have spent most of the rest of my days in North Carolina. I have studied literature, written advertising copy and spent almost twenty years writing editorials and columns for daily newspapers.

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