The changes recently announced by the College Board to its SAT college entrance exam bring to mind the familiar phrase “too little, too late.” The alleged improvements are motivated not by any serious soul searching about the SAT but by the competition the College Board has experienced from its arch rival, the ACT, the other major purveyor of standardized college entrance exams. But the problems that plague the SAT also plague the ACT. The SAT needs to be abandoned and replaced. The SAT has a status as a reliable measure of college readiness it does not deserve. The College Board has successfully marketed its exams to parents, students, colleges and universities as arbiters of educational standards. The nation actually needs fewer such exam schemes; they damage the high school curriculum and terrify both students and parents.
The blunt fact is that the SAT has never been a good predictor of academic achievement in college. High school grades adjusted to account for the curriculum and academic programs in the high school from which a student graduates are. The essential mechanism of the SAT, the multiple choice test question, is a bizarre relic of long outdated twentieth century social scientific assumptions and strategies. As every adult recognizes, knowing something or how to do something in real life is never defined by being able to choose a “right” answer from a set of possible answers (some of them intentionally misleading) put forward by faceless test designers who are rarely eminent experts. No scientist, engineer, writer, psychologist, artist, or physician—and certainly no scholar, and therefore no serious university faculty member—pursues his or her vocation by getting right answers from a set of prescribed alternatives that trivialize complexity and ambiguity.
And why do we remain addicted to the College Board’s near monopoly on tests? Why do they have an undue influence on college placement? These tests actually violate the basic justification for tests. First, despite the changes, these tests remain divorced from what is taught in high school and what ought to be taught in high school. Second, the test taker never really finds out whether he or she got any answer right or wrong and why. No baseball coach would train a team by accumulating an aggregate comparative numerical score of errors and well executed plays by each player, rating them, and then send them the results weeks later. When an error is committed it is immediately noted; the reasons are explained and the coach, at a moment in time close to the event, seeks to train the player how not to do it again.
What purpose is served by putting young people through an ordeal from which they learn nothing? Is the SAT a reasonable representation of the ideals and benefits of learning? No, it makes a mockery of them. Given the possibilities explicit in modern technology, a college entrance examination could be developed in which the test takers in real time could be told immediately if they got the right or wrong answer and guided to a program that might help them understand why they got a question right or wrong. Such a test would be like a chess match, where the clock stops after a move is made. And although the pressure of time—the need to excel under pressure—applies legitimately to pilots, generals and surgeons, is it really so important? Why not give students the time to think, research, and learn as they answer serious questions whose answers demand careful thought and knowledge? Those are the skills that are rewarded in college, and in life.
What is needed is not minor so called improvements to the SAT, but an entirely new generation of testing instruments that utilize modern technology not only to measure the performance of our students but also teach them.
That being said, the new changes to the SAT are harmless. No one will be asked arcane ugly words that have no use. No one will be penalized for guessing, which is a relief since intelligent guessing is a vital life skill that needs encouragement. (It is also nice to see that the College Board has chosen to emulate Bard’s new alternative essay entrance exam that has students read important historic texts and write on them.) The changes to the math section are welcome since they turn that part of the SAT more to fundamental areas of quantitative reasoning.
These modest reforms will do little to stem the rising tide against the College Board and its SAT. There is more and more resistance to pressuring students and parents into paying money to take a senseless exam that claims to be objective when in fact the only persistent statistical result from the SAT is the correlation between high income and high test scores. The richer one is, the better one does on the SAT. Nothing that is now proposed by the College Board breaks the fundamental role the SAT plays in perpetuating economic and therefore educational inequality.
The justification behind the SAT has been that it is an objective instrument of ability to succeed in college, when it is not. But the truth is less principled. The SAT is used by selective institutions to help them sort applicants and justify dismissing many from consideration. SAT scores also have become an integral part of another money-making racket—college rankings. The victim in this unholy alliance between the College Board (a profit-making business masquerading as a not-for-profit educational institution serving the public good) and our elite institutions of higher education are students and our nation’s educational standards.
The commonsensical truth is that the only legitimate test is one where a question is put forward and an answer required with no options or hints. The one major reform in the new SAT seems to be the dropping of a required essay. This is ironic because the one thing colleges need to know in their admissions process is how well a student can think, construct an argument, and persuade. Asking a student to sit down and write essays in an examination setting might be an excellent way to discover an applicant’s command of language and thought. This one potentially useful piece of evidence has been made optional.
The SAT will continue in its revised form to face challenges. It is part hoax and part fraud, albeit a profitable one. The College Board, however, is not entirely to blame. David Coleman is to be admired for trying to rescue an outdated, sinking ship. The real responsibility for our sorry state of affairs regarding college entrance examinations rests with our colleges and universities themselves. The elite institutions have willingly supported an alliance with the College Board to make their own lives easier, and we Americans seem to have accepted this owing to our misplaced love affair with standardized testing and rankings as the proper means to ensure educational excellence.
The time has come for colleges and universities to join together with the most innovative software designers to fundamentally reinvent a college entrance examination system. We need to come up with one that puts applicants through a rigorous but enlightening process showing what they can and cannot do, and what they know and do not know, all in an effort to reverse the unacceptable low standard of learning among high school graduates we now tolerate and to inspire prospective college students about the joy of serious learning.
Leon Botstein is the president of Bard College and the music director of the American Symphony Orchestra.