IN SEARCH OF EVEN THE MOST BASIC SKILLS: Reporting the new-and-improved SAT!

MONDAY, MARCH 10, 2014

Part 1—Could our journalists get into college: If we might borrow from our Camus:

The SAT was massively changed last Wednesday. Or maybe not, we’re not sure.

Is the SAT being changed in some major way? Even now, we’re not sure—in large part, because of the blizzard of reporting and punditry which followed Wednesday’s announcement.

The SAT is a very big deal to upper middle-class readers of our major newspapers. Perhaps for that reason, the New York Times and the Washington Post reacted to last week’s announcement as if V-S Day had occurred.

That said, much of the reporting was fuzzy—and the punditry was much worse. A familiar irony thus played out as the adults of the press corps examined this test of the nation’s teenagers:

Our journalists seem to lack the skills this test is built to explore.

In what way will the SAT be changed starting in 2016? Consider the Day One news report on the New York Times’ front page. As she started, Tamar Lewin seemed to say that the changes were large:
LEWIN (3/6/14): Saying its college admission exams do not focus enough on the important academic skills, the College Board announced on Wednesday a fundamental rethinking of the SAT, ending the longstanding penalty for guessing wrong, cutting obscure vocabulary words and making the essay optional.

The president of the College Board, David Coleman, criticized his own test, the SAT, and its main rival, the ACT, saying that both had “become disconnected from the work of our high schools.”
So far, does it sound like “a fundamental rethinking” of this test has occurred? According to Lewin, the SAT had announced three things:
*The SAT is going to “end the longstanding penalty for guessing wrong.” In her 1325-word report, Lewin never explained how that “penalty” has worked in the past. She never explained why this practice is being dropped or what sort of difference this change in procedure will make.

*The SAT is “cutting obscure vocabulary words.” Lewin never explained how these obscure words are used in the current SAT, or how much of the test is involved in their use.

*The SAT is making the essay optional. This is definitely a change in the test. But the essay has only existed since 2005, and students may continue to take it. Does this really constitute “a fundamental rethinking of the SAT?”
To us, those changes didn’t necessarily sound all that massive. As she continued, Lewin explained them further, taking another pass at the claim that the changes are a big deal:
LEWIN: The changes are extensive: The SAT's rarefied vocabulary challenges will be replaced by words that are common in college courses, like ''empirical'' and ''synthesis.'' The math questions, now scattered across many topics, will focus more narrowly on linear equations, functions and proportional thinking. The use of a calculator will no longer be allowed on some of the math sections.

The new exam will be available on paper and computer, and the scoring will revert to the old 1,600-point scale—from 2,400—with top scores of 800 on math and 800 on what will now be called ''evidence-based reading and writing.'' The optional essay, which strong writers may choose to do, will have a separate score.
In much of that passage, Lewin elaborates on the fact that the essay will now be optional. Readers still weren’t told how those “rarefied vocabulary challenges” actually work in the current SAT, or how large a part of the test they constitute.

Meanwhile, why will the SAT’s math questions “focus more narrowly on linear equations, functions and proportional thinking?” Lewin never explained. Nor did she explain why this sort of change should be seen as “extensive.”

As she continued, Lewin continued to convey the sense that these changes are large and significant. She even quoted one college official praising David Coleman, the head of the SAT, for his “heartfelt ‘damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead’ approach to improving the SAT.”

For ourselves, we weren’t sure we understood the sweep of the changes, their intention or their significance. In part, that was because of fuzzy writing like this:
LEWIN: Mr. Coleman came to the College Board in 2012, from a job as an architect of the Common Core curriculum standards, which set out the content that students must master at each level and are now making their way into school.

He announced plans to revise the SAT a year ago and almost from the start expressed dissatisfaction with the essay that was added in 2005. He said he also wanted to make the test reflect more closely what students did in high school and, perhaps most important, rein in the intense coaching and tutoring on how to take the test that often gave affluent students an advantage.
Coleman “wants to make the test reflect more closely what students did in high school?”

Does that mean he wants the SAT to measure what students know about the high school curriculum? If so, what has the SAT been measuring prior to this? Lewin never explained.

We thought Lewin’s front-page report was marked by fuzzy writing and imprecise thinking. It left us feeling that we didn’t know much about the changes the SAT is making, or about their significance.

That said, first-day reporting can be a tough gig. And Lewin’s report was an absolute jewel compared to the punditry which follow.

On Friday, the New York Times flooded the zone with opinion and analysis pieces about these changes. On Sunday, the Washington Post followed suit.

In our view, the opinion columns constituted failing work.

In a lovely irony, the embarrassing piece which ran in the Times was written by a college professor. In the Washington Post, a syndicated columnist soon matched the professor’s work.

In the Post, Kathleen Parker’s column appeared beneath another column which flatly misstated a basic fact about reading scores in D.C. Does the Post require any competency in its published work?

Within our journalistic culture, does anything ever get explained at all? Is there any reason to think that the facts you encounter are actual facts, not silly claims which Rachel dreamed up or flatly inaccurate data?

Are even the simplest basic skills required of the lofty guild which churns our “journalism?”

These high priests run our “national discourse.” If the SAT offered a rigorous test, could these famous, lofty figures get their keisters admitted to college?

Tomorrow: Embarrassing, wall-to-wall pseudo-coverage for the upper middle-class


  1. Is the SAT being aligned to the common core? It sounds to me like the test is being dumbed down. The effect of the elimination of the correction for guessing will be to inflate scores. The effect of cutting obscure vocabulary will be to eliminate the advantage held by students who read widely, especially classics and books outside the young adult genre. It sounds like the effect of changing the type of math question will be to enable students to study for the exam more effectively by limiting what they will have to be able to do. It is hard to see how that will reduce the advantage provided by those who can afford test prep.

    1. Agreed. Isn't the SAT an *aptitude* test, in contrast to the achievement tests, or don't they give those anymore?

      I'm probably wayyy behind on all this since my hs days are now, gulp, more than 5 decades behind me. But when I took them, there were English and Math SATs and achievement tests in English and Math and a bunch of other core subjects.

      I couldn't tell the difference between the English portion of the SAT and the English achievement test, except that if you were unlucky, you'd get a booklet for the English achievement that required an essay. If I remember right, those showed up in something like a third of the achievement tests.

      And I agree, if this is still supposed to be an aptitude rather than achievement test, those less familiar (and from the examples I've seen, they shouldn't be all that unfamiliar) words are designed to indicate wide reading well beyond the hs curriculum. I'm not sure why that isn't something that should be relevant.

  2. Part 1

    The SAT is a notoriously flawed test.

College enrollment specialists say that their research finds the SAT predicts between 3 and 15 percent of freshman-year college grades, and after than that nothing. Shoe size would work as well, or better. The ACT, the SAT's big competitor, is about the same. The "new, improved" SAT will be no different.

    The real story is that both the ACT and the College Board (purveyor of the PSAT, SAT, and the AP program) were major players in the development of the Common Core standards – and its massive testing regimen – which are about to be unleashed on pubic schools across the nation.

    The Common Core was funded by Bill Gates, and it was largely the work of three main groups: Achieve, ACT, and College Board. Toss in the Education Trust. All of these groups are tied tightly to corporate-style "reform."

    Achieve, Inc.'s board includes Louis Gertner, who's bad-mouthed public education for decades. It also includes Tennessee Republican governor Bill Haslam, a pro-life, anti-gay, corporate friendly politician. The board also includes Prudential executive (and former big banker) Mark Grier (Prudential has been fined multiple times for deceptive sales practices and improper trading), and Intel CEO Craig Barrett (who keeps repeating the STEM "crisis" myth). Intel has laid off thousands of workers and is masterful and aggressive at avoiding tax payments and seeking subsidization, much like Boeing, and Microsoft, and GE, and IBM, and Chevron, and AT & T. These are some of the biggest tax cheaters in the country. There’s a reason that Achieve’s main publications never mention democratic citizenship as a mission of public education.

    Achieve's funders include – not surprisingly - Boeing, Intel, GE, IBM, Chevron, JP Morgan Chase, Microsoft, Prudential (and State Farm, MetLife and other insurance companies), and the Gates Foundation. The Education Trust is funded by MetLife, State Farm, IBM, and by the Broad, Gates and Walton Foundations, among others.

    1. The board also includes Prudential executive (and former big banker) Mark Grier (Prudential has been fined multiple times for deceptive sales practices and improper trading),

      Silly cheap shot. It's as silly as writing:

      The board also some government employees(Government employees have been imjprisoned multiple times for bribery and other corrupt practics),

    2. Does the truth offend thee, Pilgrim?

  3. Part 2

    The "leaders" at the College Board include president David Coleman, who was instrumental in writing the Common Core standards, and who was a former McKinsey consultant and treasurer of disgraced former DC chancellor Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst. It includes policy chief Stefanie Sanford, former policy director for Texas Governor Rick Perry and “director of advocacy” for the Gates Foundation. It includes assessment chief Cyndie Schmeiser, who is now in charge of the PSAT, SAT, and AccuPlacer (worthless academic measures), and who was previously the chief operating officer at ACT. And it includes Amy Wilkins, formerly of the Education Trust.


Slide on over to charlatan Wendy Kopp’s Teach for America, and one finds that the big contributors are the right-wing Arnold Foundation (which wants to privatize public pensions), the arch-conservative Kern Foundation (which even wants to inculcate ministers into the belief that unregulated “free enterprise” is a “moral system”), the Broad and Gates and Walton Foundations, Cisco, State Farm, and big banks –– Bank of America, Barclays, Credit Suisse, Wells Fargo –– that have paid billions and billions in penalties and fines (with a hefty dose yet to come) for ripping off consumers and rigging “markets.”


The very same groups who seek to "reform" American public schooling so that no child is left behind, are selling snake oil that will –– and already does –– deny millions of kids a decent education. They perpetuate a corrupted system that marginalizes workers and citizens, that off-shores millions of jobs, that creates enormous inequities in income and wealth through transfers of money from public treasuries to private coffers, and they tell us that the solution lies in better teachers, more "rigorous" standards, and "accountability."


These people and groups tout the importance of “transformative reform.” They all recite the same jargon, and they all seem to believe that teachers (especially those deemed the “best and brightest”) hold the key to restoring American “economic competitiveness,” which is the foundational rationale for the Common Core. 

     It’s all unmitigated foolishness. Nonsense. But the College Board (and ACT) and big business will profit handsomely from it.


  4. I didn't take a college entrance exam (although I went to college) because I was a cranky delinquent and my kids didn't take the SAT because people in the midwest take the ACT(mostly), but I agree the huge freak out over the SAT in the NYTimes was amusing.

    I was hoping we'd get some definitive word on standardized tests out of this- an up or down vote -but sadly it looks like we have to fight over whether they're valid and useful for another 40 years.

    Let's try 40 years without them. See what happens.

  5. The SAT thing is a big question mark to me. I graduated from a community college with an associates in Liberal Arts and then transferred to and graduated from a four year college with a business degree. Never took a SAT ever.

  6. It is interesting that the mere mention of the name Zimmerman on another thread generated more comments than this thoughtful post.
    No wonder Somerby asks ""Why are we the people so dumb?"

  7. "The SAT is a very big deal to upper middle-class readers of our major newspapers."

    How big is very big? Bigger than Benghazi? More important than credit scores?

    1. Most likely the answer is "yes."

    2. That suggests the adjective very may be weak or big could be larger still. Damn people for not quantifying. No huge thing though. Hardly much of a deal breaker.

    3. "Bigger than Benghazi?"