So, the SAT is changing. Again. Gone is the mandatory essay, gone are the truly scary words, back comes the 1600 point scale, and . . . are you bored yet?
Well, boredom is the wrong answer because these changes are designed to take on “inequality and injustice.” Yes, you read that correctly. The SAT is in the social-justice business. First, it’s embracing “openness” through its partnership with the Khan Academy, a free online attempt to circumvent and undercut paid test-prep services like Kaplan. Second, it’s narrowing the test itself. In addition to making the essay optional, the vocabulary and math sections will change:
The SAT’s rarefied vocabulary challenges will be replaced by words that are common in college courses, like “empirical” and “synthesis.” The math questions, now scattered across many topics, will focus more narrowly on linear equations, functions and proportional thinking.
Sounds suspiciously like the test is becoming a bit easier.
But the difficulty of the test is beside the point. The true stakes are much greater. Here’s David Coleman, president of the College Board:
He announced plans to revise the SAT a year ago and almost from the start expressed dissatisfaction with the essay that was added in 2005. He said he also wanted to make the test reflect more closely what students did in high school and, perhaps most important, rein in the intense coaching and tutoring on how to take the test that often gave affluent students an advantage.
“It is time for the College Board to say in a clearer voice that the culture and practice of costly test preparation that has arisen around admissions exams drives the perception of inequality and injustice in our country,” Mr. Coleman said Wednesday. “It may not be our fault, but it is our problem.”
Good luck, Mr. Coleman. The openness, price, or even level of difficulty of the test is unimportant compared to the truly important number: percentile. That’s how one measures a good score in a standardized test — by comparison to your peers taking the test. So long as percentile matters, good students will compete with each other, parents will expend resources to find an edge, and entrepreneurs will find ways to provide test prep that’s higher quality than “free.” Or, as the folks at Kaplan put it, “People will always want an edge.”
Indeed, you can get rid of standardized tests entirely and base college admissions on grades only, and the same dynamic applies.
But is this a bad thing? The College Board and much of the educational establishment surely seems to think so, but I must confess that I’m stumped as to why diligent students, committed parents, and creative businesses that serve both represent a threat to justice. Certainly there are excesses (there are excesses in every human endeavor), but the desire to see your children succeed and better themselves is utterly primal in any good parent.
Ironically enough, the SAT has helped create the very elite it now seeks to restrain. As Dean Kalahar notes in American Thinker, the SAT was created in part to end “discrimination and aristocracy” in higher education. No longer was your family name the most important component of your application, now it was your SAT score. But the SAT didn’t end any achievement gaps, it shifted the identities of the achievers just a bit (it’s funny how colleges still discriminate against Asians and Jews, now for different reasons).
Our achievement gap is utterly and completely beyond the SAT’s power to fix. The SAT can’t make parents care, nor can it inspire the dispirited. It can’t make the rich spend less money on their kids. And it most definitely can’t make up for the damage done by the years of union-dominated education in our failing public schools. Trapping kids in these schools is the true threat to justice.
You can change a test, but you can’t change human nature. Savvy parents and students will do what they need to do, money will flow, and the education establishment will flail about — unwilling to honestly confront its own monumental failure as a true root cause of the “inequality and injustice” it so vociferously condemns.