New SAT don’t care ‘bout no fancy words

WASHINGTON — When the going gets tough, well, why not just make the going easier?

This seems to be the conclusion of the College Board, which administers the dreaded SAT college entrance exam. Recently announced “improvements” to the test are designed, say board officials, to better gauge what students actually study and learn in high school. Shouldn’t take too long.

Thus, the new SAT will take less time and consist of multiple-choice questions as follows: (a) yes; (b) no; (c) maybe; (d) none of the above.

Fine, perhaps I exaggerate (pardon the multiple syllables) just a tad. But one does fear that such tweaking is really a stab at greater market share — many students have turned from the SAT to ACT — and to adjust to the fact that student scores have been falling.

Owing to what, one wonders? Surely not the gradual degradation of pre-college education.

By making the test more “accessible,” board officials theorize, more students will be able to attend college, where, presumably, they will flourish. The test no longer will include fancy words, otherwise known as a rich vocabulary, or require a timed essay. The math section will be adapted so that people-who-aren’t-so-good-at-math, including but not limited to future journalists, can pretend they are.

These tweaks are a shame inasmuch as educators lose measures that provided critical information. The essay, for instance, wasn’t a call to Emersonian excellence but was a way of determining whether a student can compose a coherent sentence. You know, subject, verb — all that stuff — not to mention whether one can think. If a person can’t write a series of sentences to express a cogent thought, does that person really qualify for a college education? For what purpose?

The most entertaining test area — the analogy — was eliminated in 2005. Again, too hard? Analyzing analogies was not aimed at tripping up lower-income students who otherwise would be Fulbright-bound but of evaluating cognitive ability. Can the kid think?

Critics of the SAT maintain that the test is biased in favor of students from wealthier families. We all want a level playing field and equal opportunity for children. This is fundamental to who we are. But if we truly want to improve everyone’s chance at eventual employment and success, the playing field needs to be plowed and seeded well before the harvest of standardized testing.

It starts with schools and teachers, and everybody knows it.

Yet, today grades are inflated to assuage low student self-esteem and justify flaws in curricula and instruction. In this setting, it seems that rigorous standardized testing is more crucial than ever. As for the income differential in comparing test scores, outcomes have more to do with access to good schools and teachers than whether certain words aren’t common among lower-income students.

Does anyone really think that asking a college-bound student to know the difference between punctilious and punctual is a function of income-related bias? One would hope that college-bound students are both of these.

It is indeed unfair that children from less-prosperous homes often are stuck with the schools they get, while students from more prosperous families live in areas with better schools or can attend a private school of their choosing. Financially better-off students also have greater access to preparation courses, which the College Board helpfully will begin offering online without charge.

But there are other confounding factors that contribute to inequality as measured by testing. More prosperous students also tend to be beneficiaries of educated families that provide a learning-rich environment. Inestimable is the immense advantage of growing up in a house full of books and witnessing parents who read them.

We can’t make the world perfectly equal outcome-wise, but we can keep trying to improve opportunity through better schools and teachers. This is where the real challenges lie, but this, too, is perhaps too hard. Making tests easier so that more will pass becomes a far more accessible solution.

Periodic revision of standardized testing may be justified and, in some instances, even laudable. A new SAT focus on founding documents and their authors is one welcome shift. As to whether the new test will be useful in advancing capable students who, for whatever reason, weren’t able to demonstrate their abilities through testing — time will tell.

But saying students are ready for college doesn’t make it so.

Kathleen Parker is a Washington Post columnist. Her email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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