Review of Inside the new SAT

Review of Inside the new SAT

“Inside the new SAT,” by John Cloud,
Time magazine, October 19, 2003

a review, by Elizabeth Carson, New York City HOLD

While there is much useful and fairly objective exposition throughout, there exists an anti testing and anti content standards bias, and a subtle promotion of associated root views that tests and content standards are inherently racist and sexist and promote inequity. The drum beat of the anti testing advocates is the fundamental view that tests' primary purpose is to serve as a vehicle to sort, label and exclude. This view recurs through the article.

The introduction to the article itself raises the specter of damage and equity issues : "An exclusive look at the new exam and how it may hurt some students' scores."

The opening sentence connotes a negative attitude toward the SAT (and testing generally) and suggests denigration through sarcasm toward the changes and the changers (the College Entrance Examination Board): "Three hours of misery are apparently not enough" and continues with the concluding statement of the first paragraph: "largely intended to mold the U.S. secondary school system to its liking."

I'll add as an aside that it is certainly not true that "students have always had to brush up on vocabulary and take practice tests before the SAT." This phenomenon has developed sometime since the early 70's, when it was very rare for students to prepare for the SAT.

In the second paragraph, the use of the words "want" and "think" connote a view that the College Board is acting with regard only for its own values and standards, almost suggesting the Board's decisions are capricious. The sentence regarding the return of grammar, includes the term 'gerund' as an example, rather than choice of a more commonly known grammatical term, such as noun or verb. This choice helps suggest the Board is asking for knowledge that is archaic, no longer relevant or valuable. ("The board thinks grammar is important, so the new test will ask students to fix poorly deployed gerunds and such.") The concluding statement of this paragraph includes use of the words 'powerful' and 'push' to describe the Board's efforts and the impact at the local level, invoking the sense that the Board holds undue influence and is bullying local districts.

The third paragraph uses the adjective 'dreaded' and so again frames the SAT as a feared and disliked test. Additionally, the concept of a national curriculum is invoked, which I submit is calculated in anticipation that it will inspire knee jerk reaction in some, for the protection of state's rights and constitutional boundaries. "In short, the dreaded SAT could actually help produce a national curriculum, a sweeping education reform enacted without the passage of a single law."

The fourth paragraph blandly posits the inevitability of performance differences between genders and race. (I could think of more) The fifth, raises the fact that there is inequity in the quality of education, and that the inequity is largely a function of economic resources. OK, what’s the point? Should we immediately take a cynical view of any measurement that gives indication that we have differences in ability (perhaps some inherent) varying strengths and weaknesses and that money, cultural values and educational background influence student achievement?

The author clearly defines Caperton's [Gaston Caperton, president of the CollegeBoard] goals for the new SAT to influence and improve school curricula and serve colleges as a predictor of student performance. But note the use of the word "preoccupation" which connotes something less than reasoned or useful "At his insistence, the goal of influencing school curriculums has become the overriding preoccupation of the new test's developers."

I would hope inclusion of the Ohio curriculum specialist's worries about direct instruction in grammar were inserted as evidence the new SAT requisite for grammar is a very good thing, somehow I doubt this was the author's intent.

The author talks about Nicholas Lemann's "influential" anti SAT book, The Big Test, and includes apparently Lehman's assertion that early psychometricians were racist. Why insert this? And without mention of early ambitions of the SAT to be to address the forces of racism and to help level the playing field for entry into college? That certainly is my understanding of Harvard president James Conant's support. "Whereas early psychometricians, many of them racist, propagated what Lemann calls the dipstick theory -the idea that a test score is like a mark on a dipstick showing the raw amount of intelligence in your mental oil tank the field outgrew that simplistic notion at least a generation ago."

The author talks about an analysis that revealed a striking difference in performance on a math problem given with and without provision of a "specialized math term" and ruminates not about what the implications of this finding were in terms of the knowledge and skills and proper measurement, but rather ruminates about who the students were who did poorly when the term was added. "Who are all those students who could do the math but didn't know the specialized language?"

Accusations of elitism, and the anti content and anti traditional canon of literature perspectives (which include accusations of elitism) is subtly injected in the author's discussion of the SAT requisite for familiarity with great literature. He includes a note that the great authors such as Faulkner and Joyce are required reading in only the best schools (This is exaggerated to begin with; more than only the best schools have decent required reading lists.) and then asserts his concern for equity: "Students who have already read these authors will have a clear advantage over those who haven't." He then goes on to accede that encouraging students to read good books may be a good thing, but follows by injecting a little poison arrow: "But now you're measuring not just reading ability but also the achievement of having plowed through As I Lay Dying."

The final paragraph of the article frames the changes in the design and agenda of the SAT as "another great social experiment" (which to my mind bears an underlying ironic tone and subtly suggests an end no better) and finishes with ruminations of concerns (once more) for equity.

The bias in this report is profound. I definitely won't need any more coffee today.

Nonpartisan Education Review HOME