Guest Column: An attempt to clarify issues with the SAT

04/06/2014 12:00 PM |
KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Students in Ms. Salmaggi's class work with iPads Tuesday morning at Southold High School.

Students in Ms. Salmaggi’s class work with iPads in 2012 at Southold High School. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder, file)

Just as the SAT exam is not new, neither are educational standards. In a Guest Spot piece titled “SAT, Common Core don’t match up,” published in the News-Review newspaper and website, as well as on suffolktimes.com, Shoreham-Wading River Superintendent Steven Cohen brings changes to the SAT exam to readers’ attention.

In our current climate of change, it is our responsibility as practicing professionals to clarify the sometimes confusing shifts our students and colleagues face.  Educational leaders have a responsibility to help the public clearly understand changes in policy, instruction and assessment — especially those high-stakes tests over which families and students fret. Dr. Cohen’s passion for meaningful learning has done much to stimulate discussion around standards and testing here on Long Island, but I’m afraid his column muddies the waters around the changes to the SAT exam and the changes in the learning standards adopted by New York State.

To call the SAT the “most important part of the admissions process” promotes the myth that these scores are the sole determining factor for a high school student’s shot at college admission. Why frighten our high school students and their parents when even our nation’s most competitive colleges do not overemphasize standardized test scores? The following information from Yale’s admissions web page is similar to advice from other competitive universities:

“So what matters most in your application? Ultimately, everything matters … it is fruitless to worry too much about any one of them. Our advice is to pursue what you love and tell us about that. Be yourself … Apply and relax.”

This well-balanced message mirrors the advice of excellent guidance counselors and supportive parents, but I know firsthand how difficult it is to “apply and relax.” Not only have I taught high school juniors and seniors for the past 15 years, I am the mother of a current high school junior who has embarked on the college search. I know all too well how real — not “bogus” — the SAT is for my students and for my own child. When my students worry about the SAT, I assure them it’s only one tool used to measure just a fraction of their capabilities — that their scores do not measure their worth as people, as so many students mistakenly believe. To blame David Coleman, the current president of the College Board, for an unfair standardized testing system that for nearly 100 years has favored the affluent over the poor oversimplifies the bigger, more important equity issues impacting access to higher education.

Recently, our gripes with all manner of “unfair” educational practices have fallen under the umbrella of the “Common Core.” Before the Common Core Learning Standards, there was the SAT; before the Common Core Learning Standards, there were differences in standardized testing results between the affluent and the poor. But to throw one more issue — changes to the SAT — onto the pyre of the Common Core Learning Standards doesn’t seem fair to the complexity of the myriad problems with the standardized testing industry or to the complexity of the Common Core Learning Standards and their implementation here in New York.

Here are the facts about the proposed changes to the SAT exam:

• The SAT has proposed changes in its format beginning in the spring of 2016.

• It is ending a required essay that was added in 2005 because it “has not contributed significantly to the overall predictive power of the exam,” according to a College Board press release.

• The essay section will become optional and will require students to cite evidence.

• Passages on the exam will be authentic texts from American history or science, not random selections currently in use.

• The SAT will also lose some of the more obscure vocabulary words that frustrate even my most high-achieving students, offering instead relevant words that students are likely to see in real life. This focus on academic language is a cornerstone of the Common Core Learning Standards for ELA.

• They will remove the penalty for wrong answers, thus eliminating the “to guess or not to guess” conflict students currently face.  Students will be scored for “rights only” (collegeboard.org).

• One of the most remarkable changes includes free (yes, free) tutoring for the exam offered online by Khan Academy (khanacademy.org).

This information is critical for parents, students and the community to know. What’s also critically important for us to remember is that not a single test — whether it’s feared or revered, passed or failed — can ever tell us all we need to know about our uniquely capable children. All of us — parents, school leaders, teachers, and citizens — can agree on that fact, as it represents an important guiding principle that unites us all in the pursuit of purposeful learning opportunities for all of our kids.

TAmanda Barney is a mother of three who teaches high school English. She is a lifelong Mattituck resident.

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