A couple of days ago, I was interviewed by Michael Arlen Davis for his forthcoming documentary The Test (working title).
Michael had interviewed me before, but this time he wanted to talk about the recent series of blog posts in which I’ve taken the College Board to task for the many inconsistencies and, shall we say, questionable claims regarding the new SAT.
One of the things that Michael asked me in the course of the interview was why so few people seemed to be talking about these issues and why, when they were brought up, they were usually dealt with in such as cursory and superficial manner.
As I explained, I’m a little taken aback that so few people are (publicly) scratching below the surface of the College Board’s claims in anything resembling a substantive manner. After all, only a very small amount of scrutiny is necessary to poke holes in many of those claims.
On another level, though, I’m not really that surprised. Most of the people who are really taking the
reform privatization movement to task in print are somehow involved in public education. I’m not sure how aware most test-prep people are about the politics driving the redesign of the test. And why should they pay attention? Common Core doesn’t really affect them. No one is holding them “accountable” or suggesting that their students scores should count for 50% of their evaluations. They’re working on a whole different model, and they can ignore a lot of what goes on in public education and just focus on what they do.
On the flip side, high school teachers don’t have a direct stake in the SAT either. That’s one test they’re not held accountable for (at least most of them aren’t…yet), and preparing students for it is not an explicit part of their job. They don’t have the time to spend worrying about it.
Another reason that the SAT overhaul hasn’t gotten all that much serious mainstream scrutiny is that the same people pushing education reform have an outsized influence on what gets published in most major newspapers. Hence The New York Times’ largely sycophantic (yes, that is the only word) treatment of David Coleman as well as its parroting of the standard lines about “obscure” vocabulary, alignment with “what students are doing in school,” etc.
Susan Ohanian’s recent Counterpunch article does an excellent job explaining just why the Times’ education coverage has become so biased and superficial, and the conflict of interests posed by the Broad Foundation’s funding of education reporting at the Los Angeles Times has been chronicled elsewhere. The problem is that the people calling attention to these problems are, by necessity, doing so primarily in relatively marginal publications (with the exception of The Washington Post). As a result, it’s easy for their claims to be dismissed.
I suspect, however, that one of the biggest reasons the SAT overhaul hasn’t provoked all that much consternation is that no one really likes the test very much in the first place.
Regardless of what the test is or is not in 2015, the SAT will forever be associated with the exaggerated claims regarding “aptitude” that the College Board originally made about it – claims that no single three-and-a-half-hour multiple-choice test could possibly live up to. It does not matter that the SAT no longer includes truly obscure vocabulary, or analogies, or references to rowing, or that the acronym SAT no longer stands for “Scholastic Aptitude Test,” or anything at all, and that the (pre-Coleman) College Board long ago stopped claiming that the test is correlated with anything beyond freshman college grades.
The test was branded the way it was branded, and that branding is what stuck. The College Board is still very much the victim of its own publicity. That the reality has changed is immaterial to virtually everyone except that minuscule percentage of the population that deals with it for work on a daily basis.
Thus, the SAT routinely comes under fire for things that the ACT is given a pass on, even if certain problems are identical or even worse on the ACT. No one seems be up in arms about the fact that students can make up personal examples on the ACT essay; or that the reading section can be gamed far, far more easily than the SAT reading section through strategic guessing; or that next to none of the grammar tested on the English section is actually taught in American classrooms (to give only a few examples). Yet the ACT never attracts the furor that the SAT does simply because the former was branded as a “curriculum-based” test, and that is the lens through which people view it.
I don’t deny that from the perspective of the average 16 year-old who has never read anything more challenging than To Kill a Mockingbird, and who has quite possibly figured out how to get through high school without ever reading anything at all (except perhaps sparknotes.com), a lot of those SAT sentence completion words do seem pretty obscure.
The problem is that the 50 year-olds writing about the changes in the test never stop to think that what seemed obscure to them almost 35 years ago might not actually be all that obscure – or, for that matter, notice that their own writing is peppered with many of the words tested on the SAT. One has the impression that they’re still sufficiently traumatized from their own high school experiences that they’re unable to examine the test from an objective, adult perspective. (I’ve seen more than one parent recoil in shock when they discovered that their children didn’t know words they considered commonplace.) For the record, anyone who spent their time memorizing a list of genuinely arcane words for the SAT would be seriously misguided, and no one who knew the test well would even produce such a list for study.
And yes, the achievement gap on the SAT does mirror the achievement gap produced by the American school system as a whole. As I’ve said before, it would be virtually impossible to design an academic test that didn’t in some way reflect that gap. (I’m not even going to touch the idea that college admissions exams shouldn’t test academic skills). Even if score differences are, in the part, the end result of 15+ years of cumulative inequalities, it’s much easier to pin the blame on a single test than it is to look at underlying structural factors.
The result of all this is that most people are not particularly interested in hearing about what’s really on the SAT in 2015. If you know that the SAT is stupid, that it’s pointless, that’s it only tests how well you take it, that’s it’s racist, classist, sexist, etc., why on earth would you bother to defend it? Or even be particularly curious about what’s actually tested on it?
What really concerns me, though, is that the College Board is perfectly aware of this baggage and is making a very cynical and deliberate attempt to exploit it, knowing full well that it can distribute outright misinformation about the SAT without any real pushback.
Perhaps that’s just a reflection of a larger cultural generally uninterested in facts or evidence, but there seems to me something exceptionally slimy about touting the importance of evidence and then going out of the way to ignore or distort basic facts. It’s not just the lack of interest in reality; it’s the deliberate flouting of it, under the pretense of being fair and reasonable.
Maybe I’m just naive, but I don’t think I can be the only person who finds this disturbing.