On the SATs II

February 28, 2015

March 1, 2015

The past months brought two things to mind for many of our local high school sophomores, juniors and seniors. It is/was a time for those considering college to either take the SATs for the first time or improve earlier SAT scores.

Well, what does the SAT stand for? It is an acronym for Scholastic Aptitude Test. The SAT prior to 2005 was based on a maximum score of 1600. The current SAT scores can range from 600 – 2400; the score is based on three 800 point sections:

1. Mathematics
2. Critical reading
3. Writing

However, the College Board – who owns and operates the SAT – announced last year that it would revert back to the earlier 1600 maximum grade scale. Unfortunately, there is little sample material available for the new SAT that will debut in early 2016.

The previous paragraph provided a short history of the SAT. But the SAT, like environmental regulations and the Professional Engineering (PE) test, is a moving target. Thus, this article is primarily concerned with the new SAT, the SAT that will be employed starting in early 2016. Hopefully, this article should be primarily of interest to high school sophomore students and their parents. It should also be of some value to juniors and seniors.

There are seven key changes to the new SAT. The new test includes the following topics:

1. Relevant words
2. Applying available evidence
3. Analyzing an essay
4. Problem solving and data analysis (math)
5. Real world applications in science
6. History/social studies analysis
7. Formulating documents discussion/analysis

In addition, the wrong answer penalty has been removed.

Although I believe the above are positive changes, there are two topics that should be introduced and expanded upon – communication skills and solving/addressing open-ended problems. Details on both these subject matters follow.

Communication skills need no introduction. More than anything else, both technical and business personnel in the future will have to be able to communicate both orally and in writing. There is an old saying that a graduate from an Ivy League university can’t count and an MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) graduate can’t read or write. But today, successful individuals must be able to express themselves in both oral and written communication. Technical and business ability is of little use if one cannot transmit ideas to others. In addition, the major contact one has with other administrators of an organization who can determine raises and promotions is through written communication. Oral and written communications are therefore important in all fields. Well, what about the word communication? Communication has been defined by some as an act of expressing ideas, especially in speech and writing, by others as an act of transmitting ideas or information, and still others, as an exchange of information or messages by speech, writing, and so on. The word oral implies something uttered by mouth, spoken, or involving the use of speech, while the word written is defined as an expression recorded in a readable format, such as books or other literary material, or an idea that is “put into writing or written form.” What does the above mean? Communication is important, particularly in today’s high-technology and Internet environment.

In terms of introducing open-ended problems, the cliché of the creative individual has unfortunately been aptly described throughout history – the Einsteinian wild hair, being locked in a room for days at a time, mumbling to oneself, eating sporadically, being lost in a fog of conflicting thoughts, not paying attention to one’s hygiene, working diligently until those times when the “light goes on” moment of discovery, etc. It is no secret that technical and business personnel in the future will have to be innovative and creative in order to succeed in the corporate world. In effect, the leaders of tomorrow must be problem-solvers as they face critical decisions in solving complex problems. The education process should provide assistance in making better decisions using analytical skills. One approach to developing one’s ability to solve unique problems is by employing “open-ended” approaches. Although the term “open-ended” has come to mean different things to different people, it basically describes an approach to the solution of a problem/situation for which there is usually not a unique solution and/or where there is little to no information available to assist in the solution.

Back to the new SAT. Will the new changes make positive difference even without communication and creative material? I believe it will, but the jury is still out. Here are some negative and positive features.

What’s the downside on the SATs?
1. The exam is primarily important to a small number of top students and overachievers who are attempting to gain entrance to a particular school, usually a prestigious one.
2. The SATs can demoralize those students who might be described as marginal.
3. The SATs essentially forced many institutions early on to accept affirmative action rather than equal opportunity when many minorities could not “cut the mustard.”
4. Many students have become so frightened of the tests that they cannot perform up to their true potential.
5. Students of wealthy parents consistently outperform their counterparts. This may be due to the fact that they have the financial means to take expensive SAT prep courses.
6. Scores on the SATs also vary with ethnic background. And, the variation is statistically significant.
7. Many high school students live in a world in which they distrust the education system; they essentially have no confidence in the procedures that are in place.
8. There has been an overemphasis to teach not for the purpose of learning but rather to score well on the SAT.
9. The speed-oriented nature of the test adversely affects “slow” exam takers.
10. Finally, there is the claim that the exams do not truly test a student’s ability to succeed in either life or business.

What’s the upside of the SATs?
1. Most educators feel that the tests are necessary.
2. Some students also feel the tests are necessary.
3. There is a need to properly interpret and evaluate a student’s ability to handle traditional course work at the college and/or university level.
4. At exam time, everyone has the same shot, particularly because of the multiple-choice nature of the exams. The grading is truly objective.
5. With reference to (4), since most of the scoring is drawn from multiple choice questions, subjective grading is minimized.

I feel the SAT serves as a common denominator for all students and should be retained as a requirement. My advice to parents and students at or below the eleventh grade is to review as many earlier (sample) tests as possible. As Bob Morgan Jr. wrote in his February 23, 2001 (fourteen years ago) Litmor column: “The SAT is at best an imperfect measuring stick, and it seems likely that test scores can be improved by coaching. Nevertheless, the SAT does have the very important virtue of being an objective and uniform measure, with substantive correlation to college achievement that is uninfluenced by admissions politics and other extraneous considerations.” My only comment here, after fifty earlier years in the academic arena, is that the SAT and grade point averages (GPAs) at the college level serve as a weak correlation with the degree to which a student will succeed later in life.

So, if not the SATs, what then? A tough question to answer. It appears that they are the best indicators we have to determine whether students have the necessary foundation of skills to compete at the next level. Thus, until something better comes along, the SATs continue to deserve their day in court.

Finally comes the course of study. I would suggest either an engineering (preferably) or science program if one is to integrate oral and written communication, so-called critical thinking, and analytical reasoning in order to acquire the complex skills to succeed in the future. In effect, students need to become problem solvers . . . but, I don’t think too many schools deliver on their website promise to “foster creative thinking.”

Lou Theodore

NEXT POSTINGS: (tentative)

APRIL 1: On Paying Student – Athletes III
MAY 1: On School Taxes
JUNE 1: On Barack Hussein Obama IV