SAT Scores Hit a Low Point, but Test Maker Has a Solution

SAT scores are the lowest they've been in a decade, so we're making the test easier to take. What does that say about our data-obsessed culture?

This year, SAT scores are the lowest they have been in a decade. As a result, the test makers are making the essay optional, eliminating “obscure” vocabulary words, and no longer penalizing guessing. In effect, they are making the test easier to take in order to induce higher scores. Cyndie Schmeiser of College Board (which owns the SATs), believes that as a result of these changes, they will “deliver opportunities” for success in “college and careers.” But what do the lower test scores actually indicate, and what are the implications of making the test easier?

There is an absurdity in assuming that a test could indicate college readiness. College requires critical and abstract thinking and creative problem-solving abilities, which are more about how you think than how you memorize facts. Out of the three categories tested on the SAT, the lowest scores were on the writing portion. The irony is that the skills one uses when writing are actually more indicative of college readiness than skills used in the other portions. By making this section optional, we are reinforcing the idea that thinking is less important than knowing the answer.

There is an absurdity in assuming that a test could indicate college readiness.

As reported in the 2009 film Race to Nowhere (now on Netflix), many University of California and California State students are asked to take remedial classes either before entering college or in their freshmen year. While the SAT aims to assess college readiness, it is apparently falling short of that goal. Many of the UC and Cal State students are the best and brightest in their high school, and perform well on the standardized tests.

If performing well on the SAT indicates preparedness for college, then why are so many students going to college unprepared to think for themselves? What do you do when you are asked to solve a problem in math or science, or asked to analyze information in literature, economics, or politics, but don't know how? The SAT scores are lower, so we make the test easier, so we can show higher scores, so we can get kids into college, and when we finally get the kids to college, they are (for the most part) caustically unprepared.

We live in a culture that doesn’t recognize that there are other forms of intelligence than those we currently test.

I never liked tests. I don’t test well. I don’t like sitting in a room and filling in bubbles and having someone assess my intelligence through my ability to answer questions in a way that they find correct. I spent my time in high school less concerned with playing the game, and spent more time reading, thinking, creating, and staying informed on current events (I’m still the only person I know that subscribed to Time and Newsweek at age 15).

As a result, I felt more prepared for college work than some of my peers that performed better on the SATs. We live in a culture that doesn’t recognize that there are other forms of intelligence than those we currently test, and incorrectly assumes that there is a way to test intelligence and that such tests indicate a preparedness for college and the real world.

How do we prepare high school kids for college? Our overreliance on data isn’t going to help, but what is? It’s a multi-faceted problem with no simple solution. There are some top colleges that don’t require SAT scores, or otherwise place little emphasis on them. This is an encouraging trend, and may have a ripple effect among high schools and other colleges. The more emphasis we place on learning and less we place on data, the better thinkers that will emerge. Information is power, but critical thinking is everything. 


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