Can we get something straight? The SAT does not test “rote learning”

People seem to be throwing around the term “rote learning” a whole lot these days in regard to the SAT, without any apparent understanding of what it actually means. So in a modest — and perhaps vain — attempt at cutting through some of this linguistic obfuscation, I offer the following explanation.

This is an example of a question that tests rote knowledge:

The dates of the American Civil War were:

(A) 1849-1853
(B) 1855-1860
(C) 1861-1865
(D) 1866-1871
(E) 1872-1876

This question does not require any thought whatsoever, nor does it require the answerer to have any actual knowledge of the American Civil War beyond when it occurred. It is simply necessary to have memorized a set of dates, end of story. This is what “rote learning” actually means — memorizing bits and pieces of information, devoid of context, and without consideration of how those particular bits and pieces of information fit into a larger context.

The SAT does not ask questions like this. Ever.

It may be necessary to have internalized a certain amount of knowledge in order be able to answer SAT questions, but the questions themselves require application of knowledge. Sometimes that application may be quite straightforward, but it will be application nonetheless. And a test that requires the application of knowledge is, by definition, not a test of rote learning.

For example, consider the following passage: You can make a mess of any language. It all depends on who is doing the talking and how he or she speaks – the speed, rhythm, and tone of voice. When some people open their mouths, the results sound more like yelling than talking. So isn’t it a little presumptuous to claim that one language is beautiful and another is ugly? Isn’t beauty entirely subjective? And what’s more: who actually knows every language and is in a position to make such a definitive judgment? The Japanese – to take just one example of a non-Western culture – seem to see the whole matter differently. A friend who is a professor in Tokyo explained to me that Japanese people generally consider their mother tongue to be the most beautiful, but also have a high opinion of French and the Polynesian languages.

A rhetorical technique used in the passage is

(A) simile
(B) irony
(C) allusion
(D) rhetorical questioning
(E) understatement

In order to answer this question, the reader must have learned the definition of the correct term (perhaps by rote, although probably not, since English teachers usually teach by example) as well as the definitions of the incorrect terms (usually necessary to prevent second guessing), AND be able to apply that knowledge in the context of an unfamiliar piece of writing.

That is not a “rote” exercise.

To be certain it is possible to answer this question with a very effective shortcut — since “rhetorical questioning” is listed as an answer choice, it is only necessary to scan the passage for question marks, which lo and behold are there — but one that still requires the test-taker to remember the “trick” as well as the situation in which it can be applied, and then ignore other, potentially confusing pieces of information that may prevent secure selection of that answer.

From an adult’s perspective, that might well sound like nothing more than a feeble objection to the idea that doing well on the SAT is just about knowing the right “tricks,” but for a kid whose comprehension is only so-so to start with, and who’s trying to recall and apply dozens of other strategies over the course of 4.5 hour test, remembering to only look for question marks and ignore everything else when an answer choice says “rhetorical questioning” can be a very tall order. (“I know you said to look for question marks, and I saw question marks, but then I thought well, maybe there’s an allusion — I mean, the guy, he like talks about his friend and Japan and stuff…”).

The fact that (D) must be the correct answer because the SAT is a logic test, designed to test simple and efficient solutions, and the fact that (D) involves the simplest, most efficient way of answering the question doesn’t even cross their minds because they’re too busy trying to remember what their English teacher said about irony last week. They also tend to lack the metacognitive skills that would allow them to think in those terms.

So now the real question: when people accuse the SAT of testing “rote learning,” what do they actually mean?

Ever since I went on my little rant about Elizabeth Kolbert, I’ve been seriously pondering this matter.

First, I suspect that most of people who accuse the SAT or promoting “rote learning” have given no thought whatsoever to the actual meaning of the term and are simply repeating (by rote) what they’ve heard because bashing the test makes them feel superior. Since everyone knows that “rote learning” is bad, and since the SAT is a bad test, the SAT must therefore test rote knowledge. Deduction by means of association.

You see, in the education debate, that’s the beauty of never defining your terms — whatever you happen to be against constitutes “rote learning,” and whatever you’re in favor of is “critical thinking.” Moreover, when people actually start to exhibit critical thinking (such as parsing the meanings of words and their implications), you can turn around and attack them for pedantry, for overcomplicating matters, for worrying about pointless, academic minutiae, as opposed to the real issue: lack of critical thinking. Which is of course never defined. And so on.

The result is a conversation that goes nowhere, which is probably the point. Presumably, that’s just how the hedge-funders trying to privatize education want it.

But I digress.

For the people who have even given a split-second thought to the meaning of “rote learning,” I suspect they’re using the term to refer to the fact that SAT questions have only one correct answer, and that the test-takers must choose an answer phrased in somebody else’s words (lack of creativity, the horror!).

That is not, however, the same thing as testing rote knowledge — and as your friendly neighborhood pedant, I think that it’s important to make that distinction.

The underlying assumption, I think, is that there is no real relationship between SAT questions and their answers, and that questions that have only one correct answer cannot involve critical thinking — that is, multiple steps of reasoning and logic, the identification of supporting evidence (!), the systematic elimination of illogical possibilities based on both the questions themselves and, yes, knowledge of the test’s framework. Answering SAT questions requires all of those things. Moreover, there is usually more than one way to arrive at each answer, and the student has complete autonomy to employ whichever one they see fit. All that matters is that they get to the right answer somehow.

The real criticism, I suspect, is that there is even such thing as a right answer. If you believe that every answer, no matter how harebrained, has merit, then of course you’re going to have a problem with the SAT — or with any test, for that matter.

If you are going to criticize the SAT for asking questions that only have one right answer, then criticize the SAT for asking questions that have only one right answer. And if you believe that there’s no such thing as a question with only one right answer, then at least have the guts to say that too. (By the way, I’m all in favor of open-ended essay exams, provided that they’re graded with an appropriate level of rigor. Realistically, though, the chance of such a system being accepted in the United States anytime soon is approximately zero.)

But newsflash: In the real world, right answers count; it doesn’t matter how the solution is arrived at. Furthermore, efficient, reliable, and, yes, creative shortcuts tend to be rewarded. When students look at me anxiously and ask me what they’re supposed to do, even though the directions are printed right in front of them (and we discussed those directions the previous session, as well as the session before that), I don’t just worry about how they’re going to do on the SAT — I worry about how they’re going to function in the real world.