19 September 2011

Some thoughts about the drop in SAT Verbal scores

The New York Times reported several days ago that SAT Verbal scores are down.

Granted the drop isn’t immense — three points in Reading (to 497), two in Writing (to 489) — but it’s still generating a fair amount of hand-wringing. Given that the Writing section is the most straightforward section to prep for, I find it perversely impressive that 1) Writing scores have been consistently lower than scores in the other two sections; and that 2) average Writing scores have actually dropped every year since the section was introduced in 2005 (although the number of 700-800 scores spiked by about 5,000 this year).

Among the proposed reasons for the drop are shifting demographics, including an increasing number of students who speak more than one language at home (27 percent up from 19 percent a decade ago) and an increasingly narrow focus on preparation for state-mandated standardized tests.

Based on what I’ve observed, I think that there’s also something else going on here. As a disclaimer, let me say that most of the students I work with are decidedly not disadvantaged (some of them attend schools that are more selective than most of the Ivy League — for kindergarten), but nevertheless, I have noticed some disturbing trends in their schoolwork, trends that I suspect are probably echoed at schools both private and public.

First, the total, utter absence of vocabulary tests. Some of my students tell me that the last vocabulary test they had was in fifth grade. Some of them tell me that they’ve just plain never had a vocabulary test. It’s no wonder that they have spend their time cramming hundreds or even thousands of words before the SAT — they’re trying to stuff into a period of months the kind of knowledge that is better acquired over a period of years. And because they’re memorizing words from lists or flash cards rather than encountering them in the more organic context of actual reading, they often miss the kinds of nuances and/or second meanings that the SAT is fond of testing (e.g. “to embroider” can mean “to invent,” not just “to sew.”)

Which brings me to my second point: more and more, I’m encountering students who, with the exception of a Shakespeare play or two, rarely have to read works written before the twentieth century.

Occasionally I’ll be called on to help someone with a paper on Dickens or Twain, but very, very rarely anything before that. Far more frequently, my students are required to read novels written over the past few decades. While there’s nothing wrong with contemporary fiction per se, I’m going to pull out my uber (literary) conservative Harold Bloom-esque claws and say that a lot of it just shouldn’t have a place in the high school classroom. By focusing on works that students can relate to, schools deprive them of the chance to grapple with unfamiliar vocabulary, characters, and situations, as well as the opportunity to decode challenging literal meanings. If these skills aren’t built up steadily over a long period of time, they can be almost impossible to develop in a flash when the SAT rolls around. It’s no surprise that most students are utterly flummoxed by the “Miss Keeldar” and “Trabb’s boy” passages in the Blue Book — the language and diction are so foreign to them that they simply have no idea how to make sense of what’s being said.

As for the Writing section… well, let’s just say that I’m overjoyed, not to mention shocked, when a student can actually identify a preposition, never mind a prepositional phrase. I’ve had maybe five students who could absolutely nail comma splices off the bat (indicating they knew what a sentence was), and many have continued to struggle with the distinction between the simple past (“went”) and the past perfect (“had gone”) for months. Even when they’ve covered the same grammar in French or Spanish, they’ve learned it so poorly that they can’t establish any relationship between it and the English grammar on the SAT.

While I don’t doubt that there are a handful of very rigorous high schools that are still doing an exceptional job of inculcating the skills necessary to ace the SAT, the vast majority — at least from what I can tell — are simply not.

So what to do?

Dump the test (as Fair Test would have it)? Or, perhaps, take a good, hard look at what’s actually being taught in American schools…?

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