There is no “guessing penalty” on the SAT

Among the partial truths disseminated by the College Board, the phrase “guessing penalty” ranks way up there on the list of things that irk me most. In fact, I’d say it’s probably #2, after the whole “obscure vocabulary” thing.

Actually, calling it a partial truth is generous. It’s actually more of a distortion, an obfuscation, a misnomer, or, to use a “relevant” word, a lie.

Let’s deconstruct it a bit, shall we?

It is of course true that the current SAT subtracts an additional ¼ point for each incorrect answer. While this state of affairs is a perennial irritant to test-takers, not to mention a contributing factor to the test’s reputation for “trickiness,” it nevertheless serves a very important purpose – namely, it functions as a corrective to prevent students from earning too many points from lucky guessing and thus from achieving scores that seriously misrepresent what they actually know.

There is, however, no automatic correlation between guessing and answering questions correctly or incorrectly. (If there weren’t, “how many answers should you eliminate before you guess?” debates would not exist.) It is entirely possible to make a wild guess that ends up being correct or, conversely, to be absolutely certain about an answer and be absolutely wrong.

Students are not penalized when they guess and answer questions correctly; they are penalized when they guess and answer questions incorrectly – just as they are penalized when they do not guess and answer questions incorrectly.

So why not simply the call the penalty what it is: a wrong-answer penalty designed to prevent people from getting undeserved high scores?

Well… this is where that whole rhetoric thing comes into play. This is one of those beautiful moments in which theory and reality meet. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t have designed a more perfect example myself.

You see, the use of the phrase “guessing penalty” is not just a matter of semantics but rather a clever rhetorical marketing trick.

It is, first of all, a euphemism. It replaces something unpleasant (students lose points as a result doing something wrong) with something far more palatable (students lose points as a result of daring to do something courageous).

At another level, it can be interrupted as an appeal to ethos, or justice. It is of course blatantly injust to punish students for doing something as innocuous as guessing. The goal is to emphasize the inherent unfairness of the old exam and thus to highlight the comparative fairness of the new test.

By extension, the phrase can also be interpreted as a subtle attempt at pathos, or appeal to emotion. Its goal is to evoke pity for the poor, trembling students cowering in fear of losing that extra quarter point. They’re pretty sure they know the answer but just can’t bring themselves to fill in that bubble. Oh, the horror! The new SAT, in contrast, would never be so cruel.

The so-called guessing penalty therefore serves as “evidence” that the old test should be changed, indeed must be changed. The fact that it is based on a distortion is irrelevant – the distortion is consistent with the College Board’s thesis, and thus piddling details such as reality cannot be allowed to interfere.

In reality, by the way, I’ve encountered a couple of students who panicked and skipped too many questions when it counted, but a much, much bigger problem has traditionally involved getting students to actually take the quarter-point penalty into account and stop trying to answer every question. Even when they are walked through the math over and over (and over) again, they sometimes still don’t listen. In certain instances, also, that kind of strategizing is simply too challenging. Even the students who panicked and skipped too many questions were, to be perfectly honest, still a little shaky in some areas. The scores they ended up with did accurately reflect what they knew.

But of course people who have never actually taught tend not to know these things.

So now for an alternate version, one that you probably won’t be hearing from the College Board anytime soon:

The removal of the quarter-point corrective for incorrect answers will ultimately make the SAT easier to game – indeed, it is most likely intended to do so.

Assuming that answer choice letters are evenly distributed, students not aiming for top scores will be able to select pre-determinated sections of the test (for example, fiction passages) on which they can fill in the same letter to every question and virtually guarantee that they will earn a certain number of points.

Until now, this type of strategy has been applicable only to the ACT; making it relevant to the SAT as well will deprive the ACT of a notable advantage and may ultimately play a role in helping the SAT to shed its reputation for trickiness and recapture some of its market share. For students who are unable to strategize effectively this way on their own, the tutoring industry will of course continue to step in and help.

Furthermore, the reduction of five answer choices to four will give students an even higher chance of selecting the correct responses to questions that they have not the slightest idea how to answer.

Taken together, these factors may (if it suits the narrative the College Board wants to promote) also result in a very slight but statistically significant uptick in scores, designed to suggest that more students are “college and career ready” when they are actually not.

Isn’t rhetoric beautiful?