Dumbing down the SAT is not so smart


Beginning in 2016, students taking the SAT college entrance exam will no longer be required to write an essay and will not be penalized for wrong answers.

It is being called a major overhaul of the 88-year-old exam, one whose results remain a major factor in college admission decisions nationally.

In addition to these revisions, the College Board, which owns the SAT, has agreed to begin offering the exam online as well as in its traditional paper version. Low-income students who qualify can also have the $51 test fee waived.

Officials say these changes are part of an effort to align the SAT with what teens are learning in high school and to lessen any advantages that might be gained from expensive private tutoring.

"It is time for an admissions assessment that makes it clear that the road to success is not last-minute tricks or cramming, but the challenging learning students do each day," College Board President and CEO David Coleman told reporters.

Nine years ago, with the introduction of the handwritten, 25-minute essay, the maximum SAT score was a possible 2,400 points. After these changes take effect, the test will be cut down to two sections from the current three - with the highest possible score attainable of 1,600 points - as it had been for years.

By some accounts, this new SAT will be more populist and less "elitist." That is a charge that has dogged the test for decades, with critics labeling it discriminatory against lower-income students who did not have the educational or financial resources available to score as well as their better-off, better-educated peers.

It will also be more in line with the new federal "Common Core" teaching standards for grades kindergarten through 12 that have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. The new standards focus on college and career readiness, covering English and mathematics and incorporating literacy standards across all content areas.

The SAT in recent years has been losing market share to the ACT, which most colleges also accept. Last year about 1.8 million students took the ACT compared to about 1.7 million who chose the SAT.

Dropping the essay poses a dilemma for many colleges, especially the University of California system - the largest customer of the SAT. UC administrators pushed for a series of earlier revisions that included adding the essay to begin with.

Other critics point out that making the essay optional and having a main test of only multiple-choice questions sends out a bad message. "I'm not sure it is a good signal to kids in school about the importance of writing," Katy Murphy, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

What the SAT and ACT represent are measuring sticks - ones by which everyone who takes those tests are judged against one another. The essay component of the SAT allows admissions counselors to assess the verbal strengths and weaknesses of their prospective enrollment candidates. It was designed not to punish students but to illuminate their grasp of the English language and how well they can organize and communicate their thoughts coherently. That is certainly an expectation worth living up to if one's aim is to pursue a degree in higher education. Isn't it?

It seems counter intuitive to expect we would see a stronger, smarter generation of students if we are going to "dumb down the test" and make it easier. Getting into college takes a lot of hard work. Staying there does too. Ask anyone who has been there.


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