Larger Issues, by Tim Miller

By Tim Miller

Yesterday the College Board voted on whether to make major modifications to the SAT test. One of the proposed modifications was adding a written essay to the exam like the one in the current SAT II writing exam. Also proposed were more reading comprehension questions and more difficult math questions, up to what is considered “third-year high school math,” according to Apparently a lot of people are excited about this, saying that it will better reflect high-school curricula, test skills needed in college, etc. Well, you can color me unimpressed.

As someone who has taken the SAT, numerous SAT II subject tests, and is preparing to take the GRE, I can say with some certainty that none of these proposed makeovers bring the SAT anywhere close to what it claims to be—namely a test of reasoning and indicator of collegiate performance. This is not to say that these changes or the SAT itself have no value—an argument which I think can be made, but which is not the point of this column—but rather that there is a fundamental level of dishonesty emanating from the Educational Testing Service and the College Board. These changes merely add additional window-dressing, without really addressing the fundamental problems inherent to this test and its mission.

Over the years, the SAT has been browbeaten by various people for being culturally or racially biased and subjected to many of the politically correct criticisms that are fashionable today. But that is not what I mean when I speak of the problem with the SAT. The problem is that it is a test of vocabulary and finding the little tricks the writers put into the questions. The current verbal sections (excluding the reading comprehension) are little more than exercises in remembering word meanings; the only part of them that required any actual reasoning to complete, the analogies—which at least require some logic to see a relationship between two words—would be axed under the current reform proposal. The aforementioned reading comprehension sections require no original thought or personal response to a piece of writing, just that the test taker figure out what the test writer wanted him or her to get out of it. This is fine if we want to test basic reading comprehension skills, but utterly pointless for any other purpose. Finally, the math section requires so little actual mathematical knowledge that the only way the test writers can stop even a reasonably gifted math student from scoring perfectly is to purposely make the question tricky and mislead the test taker. A small increase in the difficulty of some of the questions is not going to change that.

But some will still argue that the addition of an essay will at least make the test a little more relevant. Given the way the test operates, this is unlikely. Taking the essay portion of the SAT II writing test and moving it over to the SAT would be about the most pointless exercise ever devised. Based on my experience, the SAT II writing test essay was an exercise in writing complete sentences and making paragraph breaks in the right place. I took the writing test twice, submitting two essays that were very similar, the one difference being that I divided one into more paragraphs than the other (if I recall correctly, one was three paragraphs and the other five). The two essays received vastly different scores. The problem is that with so many essays to grade, the readers have no time to look carefully at each submission’s structure and logic. This is no problem on, say, an AP exam essay, where it is necessary to see whether the test taker understands or recalls certain fundamental facts. But without such criteria on the SAT, it is ludicrous to think that overwhelmed essay readers will be able to divine reasoning ability or even the semblance of good style based on such quick reads.

I don’t want to see writing, which, based on my experience, is a very individualized process, turned into yet another part of the dreaded SAT. People will be encouraged to write for the test in a manner that they perceive will get them the most points. To be sure, there is such a thing as good writing and bad writing, but I do not trust the ETS to arbitrate between them. Since college admissions committees are going to have to judge each candidate’s writing themselves, why bother with the meddlesome middleman that is the ETS and its SAT? The writing test in no way adds to the test’s supposed ability to test reasoning or logic.

Again, I do not want to imply that the SAT is wholly worthless. Ability to do well on the test is almost certainly a measure (albeit a somewhat imperfect one) of high school achievement and innate intelligence. But let’s call a spade a spade here. The SAT no more tests for pure reasoning ability than it tests knowledge of eighteenth century Russian tsars. It tests vocabulary and basic mathematical ability, and this is useful. But it cannot measure achievement or potential. Let’s recognize what standardized tests are, what they’re good for, and when they try to claim to be something that they’re not.