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.So far, does it sound like “a fundamental rethinking” of this test has occurred? According to Lewin, the SAT had announced three things:
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.”
*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.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:
*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?”
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.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.
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.
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.Coleman “wants to make the test reflect more closely what students did in high 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.
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