The SAT: A Pricey Horse And Buggy

News Flash: The State of Connecticut has wasted its money because it has tested all high school students with a test that proves nothing and keeps them from learning what they need to learn in order to be successful in their future. Too bad for Connecticut.

The only positive news is for the outfit that makes the test. Thanks to Connecticut and 14 other states, it is now doing better financially and gaining back its lost share of the market. Good for the outfit’s profits.

The test is the SAT and the outfit is the College Board. This past week the College Board announced triumphantly that the most recent scores on the SAT are up as is participation and the percentage of college-ready students. But wait.

Peter Greene in Forbes Magazine gives these five reasons why “there is not a need to organize a parade right now”:

  1. The scores went up an average of 8 points; that is only a 0.7% increase. No big deal. For many years, one of my job responsibilities was to analyze standardized test scores for school districts. We would not mention to parents, students, or school  boards an eight point increase or decrease because it was insignificant.
  2. Participation rates are up only because 15 states, including Connecticut, require that all students take the test. Taking the test didn’t suddenly seem like a good idea to thousands of additional kids.
  3. The College Board has no idea who is college-ready. The College Board says that 46% to 47% of the test-takers met the College Board benchmarks for college-readiness, but the thing is that there has been absolutely no field-testing to ascertain if what is tested on the SAT makes for success in college. No college professors or high school educators or college graduates were asked. And there is ample evidence that what is tested is irrelevant to success in the workplace.
  4. The gains are not impressive because the test has been changed to guarantee a huge jump in scores, and that has not happened. The SAT was originally claimed to be a test of aptitude that “leveled the playing field” for kids regardless of what their high school education had been. The SAT never delivered on that, but that is now no longer even the intent. What happened is that David Coleman, known as “the chief architect of the Common Core Standards”, became president of the College Board in 2012 and decided that the new and sole purpose of the SAT is to assess the attainment of those standards. So classrooms across the country, fashioned on teaching the Common Core, became test-prep stations for the SAT. With that scenario, scores should have climbed through the roof. They did not.
  5. The SAT measures only one thing: SAT-taking skills. Proof of that comes from the College Board. Through its free tutorials in test-taking skills, the College Board claims scores rise a lot. So if a high score is what a student or the student’s parents want, it can be had for signing up for a tutorial in test-taking skills.  And voila!

Here’s the thing, though: Colleges and universities know that the SAT is not a good predictor of success in college and are increasingly dropping the SAT requirement for admission, and we have overwhelming evidence that what is measured on the SAT will not be of much use at all to those students when they enter the workforce.

So I say, let’s get our priorities right.

Let’s teach kids what are not Common Core Standards and what is not on the SAT. I can speak directly about the 42 Common Core Standards for English Language Arts because I know how and what students need to be taught in order to excel as readers and writers and know that, without a doubt, the Common Core Standards won’t help them. The Common Core stands in their way of being thoughtful readers and effective writers. Instead, let’s teach them what they need to grow and develop as learners and thinkers and to be successful in college and the workplace.

Let’s teach kids, as Tony Wagner, the lead scholar at Harvard’s Innovation Lab, recommends. Let’s teach them to question, to think critically, to collaborate with other knowledge-seekers, to deal with ambiguity, to be creative and imaginative, to express themselves clearly and with enthusiasm as writers and speakers, and to determine productive actions after analyzing and assessing information. Then and only then will our kids be ready for college and equipped for their future.

The SAT is the horse and buggy of education. Let’s put that horse out to pasture.

       Requiring the SAT Gets Connecticut Less Than Nothing

Big News! It was on the front page of the The Hartford Courant, reported on in all the other state newspapers, and featured on the Connecticut State Department of Education website:

Nearly 66% of 11th graders met the state standards for English and 40% met the state standards for math on the 2016 SAT.

And what does that tell us about what Connecticut has gained from fully funding the SAT for all high school juniors?

Absolutely nothing.

It was a waste of taxpayer money.

First of all, it doesn’t tell us anything about who is ready for college. The SAT is based on the Common Core Standards, which Connecticut has taken as its own. The Common Core Standards lack validity and reliability. Common Core Standards were written, without input from educators at the K-12 or college level, by employees of testing companies and companies that analyze standardized test data. They were never field-tested to see if being successful with those standards makes for achievement in college. So we don’t know if we should be happy if students score well because it could be that they succeeded at something that is innocuous at best and inferior education at worst.

We do know that getting a high score on the SAT gives us no information about the students’ ability to ask their own questions, make their own connections, and construct their own meaning as they read, or express their own ideas as they write in a personal voice because the Common Core rejects those skills. And we do know that those are skills needed for college. Therefore, SAT scores don’t tell us if students will be successful in college.

Secondly, this SAT does not allow for comparisons because it is a new test. Scores cannot be compared to the SAT of past years. It has different content and a different way of being scored than past tests. Also, the student population taking the SAT has changed. Previously, 82% of high school juniors took the SAT; in 2016, with the new requirement,  94 % took the test. So with different content, scoring, and test-taking populations, no conclusions about student improvement or decline can be made.

Thirdly, some may say we need the SAT to ascertain how Connecticut is doing as compared to other states, but we have the National Assessment of Educational Progress, considered the Nation’s Report Card, that gives state-by-state reports. NAEP tests students in reading and math and scores them, based on college readiness. There is no charge to the state or local districts. Individual scores are not reported so there is no punishments for students. Best of all, there is no class time sacrificed to prepare for the tests because, during the school year, districts do not know if they are to be tested that year.

Fourthly, the SAT is not the necessity it once was. Increasingly, high school students do not need SAT scores for their college applications. Colleges and universities are realizing the limits of standardized tests as indicators of a prospective student’s academic promise and intellectual strength. Currently, 850 colleges and universities, including 210 in the “top tier”, do not require SAT or ACT scores for admission to bachelor degree programs. The research is clear, and colleges and universities are responding to it: High school grade point average is the predictor of success in college, not standardized tests.

So why does the State of Connecticut mandate that all high school juniors take the SAT?

The only reason left is the one politicians love to herald: To close the achievement gap.

Only those who have never taught students could give that answer. Educators know that there is no way that any set of standards or any standardized test has ever or will ever overcome the damage of poverty and racism. In fact, mandating standardized tests reinforces that damage and tells many impoverished students and students of color that they do not belong in the mainstream. Standardized test scores, including the SAT, are always correlated with the income of students’ parents. With the current 2016 SAT, school districts with higher scores include the affluent towns of Darien, Simsbury, Westport, and Wilton; school districts with lower scores include the cities of Hartford, Waterbury, and Bridgeport with their high rates of poverty. And so it has ever been.

Students with parents who have the time, the energy, the money, and the benefits from their own higher education to enrich the lives of their children and support them in school will always score higher than most students whose parents do not have those advantages. How could it be otherwise?

So mandating the SAT is not even a neutral event; mandating the SAT for all high school juniors is not just a nothing. It actually does harm. It limits the curriculum for all students, affluent and poor, and turns the curriculum into test prep. It does added harm to those students most in need because the cost of the tests, test prep materials, and the technology to administer the tests takes financial resources away from addressing their needs propelled by poverty and racism.

There is a path forward. Connecticut must:

  1. End the Common Core test-and-punish approach. We must recognize that we are foolishly spending millions of dollars on SBAC and the SAT, and it gains nothing for us as a state. The tests reinforce Connecticut’s shame: unconscionable income inequality.
  1. End the Common Core test-and-punish approach because it denies our children a real education as learners and thinkers that they deserve.
  1. Use the money now spent on testing to invest in what has been proven to improve student achievement. It is what every teacher knows works: positive relationships with adults in schools. Educators know that having those positive relationships with adults engages students in school, inspires them to want to learn, and gives them the skills to succeed and live productive lives. According to Wendy Lecker, senior attorney at the Education Law Center in Newark, NJ, researchers have identified three ways to foster those adult/student relationships:
  • Provide developmentally appropriate preschool in which the emphasis is on play.
  • Mandate small class size in grades K-12.
  • Reduce the student caseload of guidance counselors.

Let’s put our money where we are sure we can make a difference. It’s time to stop spending money and getting nothing for it. And, worse yet, spending money and getting less than nothing by hurting our most precious resource as a state: our children.