Exam Questions: Changes to the SAT
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RAY SUAREZ: Last week, the trustees of the College Board voted to overhaul the SAT. It’s the second major revision, in the last ten years, of the college entrance exam taken yearly by over a million high school students. The changes include adding a handwritten essay, higher-level math questions, and dropping the analogy section from the verbal test.
We begin with Gaston Caperton, President of the College Board, the former Governor of West Virginia. The last redesign, Governor, came in 1994. Why did the College Board think it needed a redesign yet again?
GASTON CAPTERON, President, College Board: Well, the College Board has always looked to make this test the best test for admissions in the country. And it was clear that some of the things that were recommended in the study that was done in 1990 and put into effect in 1994 had not been carried through with. Also, the University of California made a real challenge to us about a year and a half ago, and that created a lot of opportunity for change and a lot of conversation. So I think it is a combination of what we didn’t get done in 1994 that we knew was important, like writing. The impetus that was given by the challenge of California, who is an important member of the College Board, and the research that we have been doing on an ongoing basis.
RAY SUAREZ: What was the crux of the critique given by the University of California system — one of the biggest state college systems in the country, somebody you’d want to keep happy, I guess?
GASTON CAPTERON: Well, I don’t think it’s so much just trying to keep them happy, though you certainly would be arrogant and foolish not to listen to one of the most important institutions in this country, but I think that there were a couple of things. They, like we… like the College Board blue ribbon commission in 1990, said they thought writing should be added to the SAT.
I very strongly believe in writing being added to the test for two very specific reasons: One, it improves its predictability; even more important, as I look at it, is that writing is not done well in this country. And it is one of the college success skills people really need. And so the… putting writing on the SAT really will encourage schools across the country to begin to emphasize reading, which is so important not only to college success, but success after college.
RAY SUAREZ: Does it make it a tougher test to score?
GASTON CAPTERON: Yes. Doing… we give about three million SAT’s in the year. And so to score that many individual essays is quite challenging… for us. But thanks to technology, particularly the Internet, we feel comfortable that we will easily be able to do that, not easily, but be able to do that effectively and very carefully in March of 19… I mean, 2005, when the program becomes effective.
RAY SUAREZ: So as a result, is this going to be a harder test that we’re asking high schoolers to sit for?
GASTON CAPTERON: I think a better test; not an easier test or a harder test, but a better test. A better test because it’s going to have writing which is, as I say, along with math and reading, writing added are the real three critical college success skills one needs, along with being able to think and to reason. So I think that’s a very important part of what’s being done.
RAY SUAREZ: So, after the redesign is completed with the new math questions as well, when you talk to an admissions officer, what will you tell him about the usefulness of this exam as a tool for understanding the strengths of a college-bound high schooler?
GASTON CAPTERON: Well, I think that, first of all, they’re going to know that Algebra II is included in it, a math course that all kids going… or students going to college should have. So they know the math is a stronger component. Number two, they’ll know that the analogies have been taken out of this test, which makes it less prone to being able to prepare for, or need to prepare for, through test prep. They’ll know it’s more closely aligned to the curriculum and what kids are learning in school every day. It will have writing, which they’ve not had the privilege of having in the past. So those are the reasons… those are the things that will really strengthen the test.
RAY SUAREZ: Gaston Caperton of the College Board, thanks for being with us.
GASTON CAPTERON: Thank you.
RAY SUAREZ: Now some reactions to the changes. We get it from Freeman Hrabowski, President of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, which requires the SAT for admission; and Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a not-for-profit watchdog group for standardized testing, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, President Hrabowski, you find the SAT to be a worthwhile tool already. Is this the kind of improvement that you would have been looking for in the test?
FREEMAN HRABOWSKI, University of Maryland, Baltimore County: I think so. My colleagues and I have talked about it. The idea of including more Algebra II is important because we expect students to have a strong pre-Calculus background when they come. Actually, most people would agree that it’s great that they are not going to be using the analogies anymore, because that form of testing, of questioning students, can require a lot of practice on the wrong issues many would say. I would suggest to you that what’s really exciting about this is that emphasis will be on actually associating the test much more so with the curriculum. Algebra II, reading skills, writing, and these are the kinds of things that high schoolers should be working on anyway, it seems to me.
RAY SUAREZ: Bob Schaeffer, your organization has been a long- time critic of the SAT. Do these proposed changes in the test, coming on stream in 2005, address some of the criticisms you’ve had in past?
BOB SCHAEFFER, FairTest: The changes in the SAT announced by the College Board are largely cosmetic. They fail to address the major criticisms of the tests by groups like FairTest, and those include severe inaccuracy. It’s not as good a predictor as someone’s high school grades are. It biases the tilt of the playing filed against minorities, against older students and women, and its coachability. In fact, these changes are probably going to make the bias and coachability even worse.
RAY SUAREZ: You heard Governor Caperton mention that the adding of the writing section will actually make it less coachable, that the taking away of the analogies will make it less coachable. How do you respond to that?
BOB SCHAEFFER: Two weeks ago, they said the analogy section wasn’t coachable. Now they say they’ve taken it off because it is coachable. The truth is, that high-priced coaching companies will teach kids how to write formulaic five or six paragraph essays. It’s not the same as real writing, and the tilt in the playing field for kids whose first language isn’t English, when they have to produce a high-quality essay in 25 minutes, instead of in the real world of college where you can stay up all night to compensate for the language deficits and the need to translate back and forth, the measure that the essay provides is not real. There are better ways for colleges to get the same kind of information, such as requiring students to submit graded essays from their high school courses. They’re longer and they’re more real world.
RAY SUAREZ: President, how do you respond?
FREEMAN HRABOWSKI: We know that schools around this country vary significantly in the level of resources they receive and the quality of education students get. We need some way of determining whether or not a student can read critically and write well and compute, through Algebra II. The SAT allows us to do just that. It gives us a way of comparing students across high schools, which is very important. What seems to me to be the most important point here, though, is that we need to have a high bar, to set a high bar for all students. We should not assume that minorities or others can’t come up to that bar.
What we have to do is to give them the support through the communities, through the schools, through families, to reach that bar. And that means more emphasis on reading skills and reading– the more you read, the better you do. As a math teacher, I can tell you the more math problems you do, the better you’ll become. So, we need to be talking about test preparation in conjunction with what goes on in the schools. And most important, families need to know what’s expected of students if they’re to do well. They need to understand the kind of reading they have to do. Actually, the passages will be shorter on the new SAT, but they will still focus on critical reading skills. We’ll talk about Algebra II problems and writing. It seems to me that the test is perfectly reasonable and that the nation needs to focus its attention on ways of getting families and schools in all neighborhoods the support they need to focus on these matters, to make sure that young people, that Americans of all types can read well.
RAY SUAREZ: But you heard Bob Schaeffer say that the kind of writing test this will be– short, needed to be responded to quickly– will result in formulaic writing, not good writing.
FREEMAN HRABOWSKI: We want students to be literate — to be able to read well and write well. And students in their freshman will have to write papers, some of which — and essays and paragraphs — some of which will require their writing right there on the spot. It’s not unreasonable to think that somebody can write several paragraphs. We have to make sure that we truly believe that all children can learn and do well. And we have to give schools the support they need and teachers the support to make sure that happens. Why am I saying that? It seems to me perfectly reasonable that we would expect a high school graduate to be able to write several paragraphs in a coherent fashion, as a way of determining that that student is actually literate. I think it’s perfectly reasonable.
RAY SUAREZ: Bob Schaeffer?
BOB SCHAEFFER: Well, President Hrabowski is certainly correct that there’s huge differences in what goes on in our high schools. That’s why it makes it all the more important that the College Boards’ own data show that high school grades or high school class ranks are better predictors than its tests. The test is wildly inaccurate. And because of its flaws and biases, when colleges use it heavily in the admissions process, they end up skewing the results.
The issue isn’t the old SAT versus the new SAT or even the alternative, the ACT. The real question is why any college needs to use a test. And there are already 391 colleges and universities in this country that don’t require test scores to admit substantial numbers of their applicants, some of the most competitive schools in our country. They believe every child can learn, and they believe that every child can show it in real academic work, not largely filling in bubbles and writing one formulaic essay in three hours a Saturday morning. The high school record is much, much richer. It includes lots of tests, lots of essays, and all kinds of other information.
RAY SUAREZ: Does the test give you enough to go on?
FREEMAN HRABOWSKI: The test, in conjunction with grades and other factors, can be very helpful to us and it is very helpful to us. The fact is, as an educator who looks at transcripts and talks with teachers and counselors and parents and young people every day, I can tell you that an “A” in one school does not mean an “A” in another school. I can also tell you that sometimes young people don’t know what is really required to do well this college.
When teachers and families understand more about the content required for success in college, about the level of reading skills required, the level of Algebra II skills required, they can work even harder towards those goals. We have to make sure that we don’t assume that people know what’s required. The SAT gives us information that can be very helpful to colleges, but also when people look at the content there, they can see how well that content relates to and correlates with the curriculum and the level of expectations in those schools. It’s unfortunate, but it is a fact, that our schools differ significantly in level of education given to our students.
RAY SUAREZ: Bob Schaeffer said that the transcript is predictive more than the test is.
FREEMAN HRABOWSKI: You have to take a number of factors together. As a person in statistics, you have to take test scores and grades and courses taken and level of rigor, a number of factors. Of course there’s also the factor of just level of motivation. So admissions offices will look at all of those factors. But I can tell you on my own campus, where the average SAT is in the 1200s, that we’ve looked at the scores of large numbers of students from different kinds of backgrounds and test scores coupled with grades. And looking at the courses the student has taken, looking at the major the student is intending to pursue, can give us a lot of information in predicting whether or not that student will be successful. We have looked at those who have made it at certain levels, in terms of grades and test scores, and the SAT is a very helpful measure. In fact, 80 percent of colleges and universities in this country use the SAT, and as I talk to my colleagues around the country, they want to continue using it. In fact, what I say to parents all the time is, “who wants a doctor who can’t pass the test?”
RAY SUAREZ: Bob Schaeffer.
BOB SCHAEFFER: Well, of course an “A” in one school isn’t the same as an “A” in another school. But by the same reasoning, a 1200 on the SAT from a student whose parents have spent $1,000 or $5,000 or $15,000 for a high-priced coaching course is not the same as a 1200, or even a 1000, from a student who goes in and takes the test cold. The notion that somehow the SAT is a common yardstick or a level playing field has, in fact, been repudiated by the College Board itself. It’s very susceptible to the ability of kids whose parents have wealth to buy them a huge leg up.
RAY SUAREZ: Is a poor kid at a relative disadvantage?
FREEMAN HRABOWSKI: Of course a poor kid is at a relative disadvantage, in terms of test performance and performance… even in high school in general. The fact is the more educated the parents, the more advantages the child will have. What I would suggest is that we work to give students supplementary education. Students need to have opportunities for after-school programs, for Saturday academies, for summer programs that will focus on reading and mathematics, so that those children can have some of the advantages that upper-middle class and rich kids have in our country. What we need to focus on is an emphasis on building reading and thinking skills through mathematics, through the humanities, through other areas. And that can only happen by having students do more work. We need to be giving students far more work than they have right now.
RAY SUAREZ: Freeman Hrabowski, Bob Schaeffer, thank you both very much.