I’ve been doing some more pondering about the claims of increased equity attached to the new SAT, and although I’m still trying to sift through everything, I’ve at least managed to put my finger on something that’s been nagging at me.

Basically, the College Board is now espousing two contradictory views: on one hand, it trumpets things like the inclusion of “founding documents” in order to proclaim that the SAT will be “more aligned with what students are doing in school,” and on the other hand, it insists that no particular outside knowledge is necessary to do well on the reading portion of the exam.

While that assertion may contain a grain of truth – some very strong readers with just enough background knowledge will be able to able to navigate the test without excessive difficulty – it is also profoundly disingenuous. Comprehension can never be completely divorced from knowledge, and even middling readers students who have been fed a steady diet of “founding documents” in their APUSH classes will be at a significant advantage over even strong readers with no prior knowledge of those passages. 

You really can’t have it both ways. If background knowledge truly isn’t important and the SAT is designed to be as close to a pure reading test as possible, then every effort should be made to use passages that the vast majority of students are unlikely to have already seen. (That perspective, incidentally, is the basis for the current SAT.) 

On the flip side, a test that is truly intended to be aligned with schoolwork can only be fair if everyone taking the test is doing the same schoolwork – a virtual impossibility in the United States. That’s not a bug in the system, so to speak; it is the system. Even if Common Core had been welcomed with open arms, there would still be a staggering amount of variation.

To state what should be obvious, it is impossible to design an exam that is aligned with “what students are learning in school” when even students in neighboring towns – or even at two different schools in the same town – are doing completely different things. Does anyone sincerely think that students in public school in the South Bronx are doing the same thing as those at Exeter? Or, for that matter, that students in virtual charter schools in Mississippi are doing the same things as those in public school in Scarsdale? Yet all of these students will be taking the exact same test.

The original creators of the SAT were perfectly aware of how dramatically unequal American education was; they knew that poorer students would, on the whole, score below their better-off peers. Their primary goal was to identify the relatively small number of students from modest backgrounds who were capable of performing at a level comparable to students at top prep schools. Knowing that the former had not been exposed to the same quality of curriculum as the latter, they deliberately designed a test that was as independent as possible from any particular curriculum. 

So when people complain that the SAT doesn’t reflect, or has somehow gotten away from, “what students are doing in school,” they are, in some cases very deliberately, missing the whole point – the test was never intended to be aligned with school in the first place. Given the American attachment to local control of education, that was not an irrational decision. (Although I somehow doubt they could have ever imagined the industry, not to mention the accompanying stress, that would eventually grow up around the exam.)

Viewed in this light, the attempt to create a school-aligned SAT can actually be seen as a step backwards – one that either dramatically overestimates the power of Common Core to standardize curricula, or that simply turns a blind eye to very substantial differences in the type of work that students are actually doing in school. 

The problem is even more striking on the math side than on the verbal. As Jason Zimba, who led the Common Core math group, admitted, Common Core math is not intended to go beyond Algebra II, yet the SAT math section will now include questions dealing with trigonometry – a subject to which many juniors will not yet have been exposed. (For more about the problems with math on the new exam, see “The Revenge of K-12: How Common Core and the New SAT Lower College Standards in the U.S.” as well as “Testing Kids on Content They’ve Never Learned” by blogger Jonathan Pelto.) In that regard, the new SAT is even more misaligned with schoolwork than the reading. The current exam, in contrast, does not go beyond Algebra II – the focus is on material that pretty much everyone taking a standard college-prep program has covered. 

The unfortunate reality is that disparities in test scores reflect larger educational disparities; it’s a lot easier to blame a test than to address underlying issues, for example the relationship between tax dollars and public school funding. Yes, the test plays a role in the larger system of inequality, but it is one factor, not the primary cause. Any nationally-administered exam, whatever it happens to be called, will to some extent reflect the gap (unless, of course, you start with the explicit goal of engineering a test on which everyone can do well and work backwards to create an exam that ensures that outcome).

Assuming, however, that the goal is not to design an exam that everyone aces, then there’s no obvious way out of the impasse. Create an exam that isn’t tied to any particular curriculum, and students are forced to take time away from school to prepare. Create an exam that’s “curriculum-based,” and you inevitably leave out huge numbers of students since there’s no such thing as a standard curriculum.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.