A growing number of testy students

April 20, 2014


Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Students have been pushed to study for college-entrance exams, but recent reports of sweeping changes to the SAT call into question whether the test is necessary in the first place.

GLEN ROCK, N.J. – On the morning of Saturday March 8, 2014, high school students all across the country gathered to take the most important exam of their life.  But how did it get to this point: kids studying for hours, memorizing the format of the test, and practicing, seemingly, forever?

The current SAT test consists of ten sections, with sections focusing on reading, writing, and math.  The amount of time given to complete a section of the test is dependent on the length of that section.  For example, a section with more multiple choice questions will allow more time.  The maximum amount of time for a single section is 25 minutes.  The minimum amount of time is 10 minutes.  The entire test takes about four hours and allows students few bathroom/stretch breaks.

“It was what I expected,” said one Glen Rock student. “I was prepared it.”

The SAT was first designed so that universities and colleges across the country could determine whether a student was prepared for college.  An earlier version of the test consisted of students taking different exams for each college they applied to.  This meant that each college had a different format and would force you to adapt to their format.  However, this system became inefficient and caused many students to waste time applying for different tests.  The institutions realized that they needed a universal test that could be administered for all colleges.

According to PBS’s Frontline, the test was administered in 1901 (albeit not under the name SAT), with a very different scoring system.  The test was very broad-based and included sections of English, French, German, Latin, Greek, History, Mathematics, Chemistry, and Physics.  The test was submitted to an expert in that particular field of work who would then rate the answers as either “excellent,” “good,” “doubtful,” “poor,” or “very poor.”  According to Frontline, a third of the 973 test takers came from the northeastern U.S. (New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, etc.).

1926 introduced the term SAT (originally the Scholastic Aptitutde Test) and was prepared by Princeton psychologist Carl Campbell Brigham.  The test was fast paced and covered arithmetic, reading, definitions, analogies, and more.

Another milestone was reached in 1939 when the first machine-scored answer sheets were introduced.  These tests allowed the student responses to be scored more accurately and quickly.  Another step towards greater efficiency was made in 1941, when the SAT agreed upon new test scores to make the test as fair as possible.  In 1958, students were finally able to review their SAT scores.  At the time, the scores were only viewed by their high schools and colleges.  High Schools had eventually told their students, but the students were usually the last to know their own scores.

In 1965, the SAT took the lead in administering the tests during the Civil Rights Movement.  Previously, African-American students usually had to take the test in squalid rooms that were separated from white students.  This changed in 1965 when the College Board said that all students must be tested under equal conditions.  Any district that refused to segregate would be closed for testing and would be assessed instead at a local military base.

In 1969, students received their first opportunity to apply for a fee-based waiver to take the test.  This waiver was designed to make sure that any student would be able to take the test even if he/she could not pay the registration fee for the test.  In an effort to aid preparation for the test, the College Board published two books in 1984 with the intent of helping pupils get ready for the test.  The book gave students an actual test and introduction to the test format.  There were some even bigger changes in 1994 when the test allowed calculators on the math section and removed the questions on “antonyms.”  A greater focus was placed on reading passages, as well.

In the midst of the internet revolution in the late 90s, the College Board introduced its online website.  This allowed parents and students to receive information about the SAT online.  This change coincided with some bigger changes in the technology industry.

The last major change was made in 2005 when the SAT was redesigned in order to test students on what they were learning in high school.  “Score choice” was introduced in 2009

Thus, today’s test is rather different than where the SAT – formerly known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test – began.

In the math section, there are two types of questions.  The first type of question is multiple-choice.  The second type is “grid-in” responses.

In the reading section, there are three types of questions.  The first type of question is vocabulary in context.  These questions have a sentence with either one or two words missing from the sentence.  The student is then asked to supply the correct word(s) based on the context of the sentence.  For example, a question may read, “the author ____ the book with his many edits”.  The choices are a) scrutinizes b) examines c) throws d) laughs e) reserves.  One must then pick the correct word based on the context of the sentence.  The correct answer in this question is A because it correctly fits with the author making many edits.

The other type of question in this section is passage-based.  Passage-based questions can consist of either long or short passages.  A short passage usually has two passages that ask a handful of questions.  The longer reading passages usually have a lot of questions, all of a different type.  The questions in this section consist of vocabulary-in-context questions, line-reference questions, and questions about the theme of a particular passage.

In the writing section, there are also three types of questions.  The first type of writing question is sentence “error identification”.  These questions give you a sentence with different combinations of sentence phrases.  For example, a question may read, “The workers is going to the store in the middle of town.  Your job is to find the sentence error in the sentence.  The correct answer in this question is B because the verb “is” would be incorrect.  The sentence should read as, “The workers are going to the store in the middle of town.”

The other question type in this section is “identifying errors”.  These questions will underline five different portions of an English sentence.  Some sentences may have no error or one error, if any, in a particular sentence.  For example, a sentence may read, “the doctors made mistakes that inexperienced physicians usually make like misreading symptoms, another that occurs about as frequently is recommending inappropriate treatment.”  This question involves the underlined portion and determining whether or not it is grammatically correct.  In this question, the sentence is wrong and should be replaced with a sentence that contains a semicolon.

The other types of questions involved are the improving paragraph questions.  The improving paragraph section is not difficult, but involves a lot of comprehension in order to penetrate the meaning of the article more closely.

A fiscal test

It’s clear the SAT isn’t going anywhere.

To many, there is no other way to assess whether students are learning the curriculum they are taught in school.  Obviously, however, the test can be reformed. To its credit, the SAT has made some important steps in that direction.

However, this dominance of the SAT on the East Coast has created some unintended consequences.  According New York Times Magazine, the SAT is not a test of intelligence so much as it is a test of how much money a family makes.

For example, according to the College Board, in a family with an income from $0-$20,000, the average SAT score for those 2013 college-bound scholars is only 1326.  Keep in mind that the scale is 2400 (800 reading, 800 writing, 800 math).  That score falls in the low 33rd percentile.  Students who score in this category often enroll in community colleges.  Yet in a family who makes more than $200,000, the average SAT score for that college-bound senior is 1714.

The make-it-or-break-it college-admissions roulette of the SAT has created a greater need for tutoring.  According to the Washington Post, the test-prep industry has ballooned in size to an estimated $840 million dollars.  There are two big companies in this industry, Princeton Review and Kaplan, which offer classroom sessions, practice tests, and more.

Kaplan began over 75 years ago when its founder, Stanley Kaplan, offered practice sessions in the basement of his parents’ house.  Kaplan was a supporter of standardized testing because he thought it was a way for everyone, including immigrants like his family, to have an equal chance at getting accepted into a college.

However, even President Obama has acknowledged, in a recent speech to college presidents, that the system of standardized testing has created a bifurcated system, one which allows wealthy people to benefit from these preparatory services.  In other words, the exact problem that Kaplan was trying to rectify some 75 years ago is just as bad – if not worse – today.  President Obama, whose daughters even attend a private school in Washington D.C., said that the system is unfair.

“We know that when it comes to college advising, and preparing for tests like the ACT and the SAT, low-income kids are not on a level playing field,” Obama said in January. “We call these standardized tests.  They’re not standardized.  Malia and Sasha, by the time they’re in seventh grade at Sidwell School here, are already getting all kinds of advice and this and that and the other.  The degree of preparation that many of our kids here are getting in advance of actually taking this test tilts the playing field.  It’s not fair.  And it’s gotten worse.”

A recent press release from the College Board, however, has announced impending changes to the test during 2016, the first changes to be seen since 2005.

Nearby tutoring gives a testing edge to Glen Rock students

In Ridgewood, New Jersey, there are two women who offer professional tutoring services for college bound juniors and seniors.  These mild-mannered, academic women agreed that the need for change is necessary.

“Overall, there is a lot about the new test that might be good, but we have to wait and see,” said Sandra Scarry, one of the two women who run Aspen Tutoring, the test-prep company in Ridgewood.  “I’m glad they are reforming the essay.  Some colleges feel that the evaluation is dubious because it asks students to respond to a philosophical question in just 25 minutes.  Some schools are loath to consider the essay.”

However, on the issue of vocabulary questions, Scarry was less optimistic.  “I’m disappointed with the changes in the vocabulary,” Scarry said.  “Hopefully it will be good, but I don’t see a rationale for this action.”

Thus, while acknowledging that there are ways to reform the test, there is also no need to eliminate the system of test-taking.”

— Sandra Scarry, SAT tutor

Sandra comes “from a small town high school, in which math [class] had no calculators, English was harder, and there was less diversity among students.”

“During my day there was not as much emphasis on sports and entertainment as there are today.  Everyone read the same English material, took the same courses, and had to spend a great deal of time on school and religion.  In that sense, my life was probably more difficult back then,” explained Scarry.  “The one criticism I have with the modern day student is that they spend so much time in sports.  Teenagers have so many hours in sports, and very little time to complete homework.”

“I would like to see the kids more involved in their academic work, but that undermines the narrative of our culture,” Scarry said.

Marlene Burton, the second partner in this tutoring duo, said that students can still do a great job despite all of these activities.

“Every student can improve,” Burton said. “We give a student an evaluation exam upon enrolling in our course to find out where their proficiency level is.  Everything is relative, so we work off of that basic level.  Our ultimate goal is to raise the scores by 100 points.”

Burton sympathizes with Scarry’s assessment of the changes in education.

“My academic life was a lot different than the students of today.  We put a lot of time into our work and were expected to take difficult courses,” she said. “Also, there was less leeway in terms of the curriculum we were studying.  Everyone studied the same material, with a few exceptions.”

Yet Scarry and Burton both recognize the test’s importance for students who intend to enroll in a college.

“Clearly, the test is an important indicator,” Scarry said. “However, we shouldn’t try to teach kids any tricks or strategies on the test.  We try to teach the kids some essential concepts and information before taking the test.  As a result, we are usually very surprised with the dedication of the students.  Thus, while acknowledging that there are ways to reform the test, there is also no need to eliminate the system of test-taking.”

Scarry and Burton both agreed that there is a problem, though, in terms of low income students not being able to benefit from upper class tutoring for the SAT.

“Yes, clearly that’s a problem,” Burton said.  “But hopefully this new SAT test will alleviate those structural deficiencies.  I hope that this new test will attempt to balance the playing field by eliminating the tricks and focusing more on critical thinking in order to allow everyone who has gone through high school to be successful.”

Both also agreed that there has to be some kind of method of testing.

“Yes, there has to be a universally agreed upon method of testing our kids before they go to college.  At the end of the day, the students who will be successful will study harder and become more passionate about the test if they want to go to a good college.”

Most colleges have already acknowledged that SAT scores, while making up a large part of the application, are a smaller part of high school life.

Most colleges have a defined range of scores but will still examine an application that is 50, 100, or even 150 points away from their defined SAT range.

At Boston University, the Admissions Director even directly stated that they place a smaller importance on SAT scores than they do on other activities.  These colleges encourage students to broaden their perspective so that they focus on defining themselves through other activities.

The director said that they are not all that concerned about how students perform on a test on one “Saturday morning” during the school year.

Some colleges have even adopted a policy of omitting SAT scores from students’ academic profiles.  According to Allen Grove, a college prep writer, there are 850 institutions that do not require SAT or ACT scores.  The list includes colleges such as Wake Forest, Pitzer, Bowdoin, DePaul, and Mount Holyoke.  This is good news for students who feel that the system of standardized testing is dubious and irrelevant to their overall college prospects.

Parents, quite frankly, are the problem”

— Bill Maher

These decisions have also been made in response to the test-cheating scandals that have arisen over the last few years.

Angel Perez, the Dean of Admissions at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, noted that his college is seeing a surge in applications due to their test-optional policy.  “We’re attracting a population we want that would’ve never applied,” Mr. Perez said. “And of course, we’re busier as a result.”

These schools, in response to the burgeoning application pool, have had to lower their acceptance rates.

Some people don’t agree with these steps, though.  When the College Board announced the most recent changes, some in the media (most of who went to high-ranked colleges) were skeptical.  Bill Maher, a liberal comedian and host of HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher, strongly objected to the changes on his Friday night show.

Maher, a Cornell graduate himself, questioned the culture of school today – moving the blame for low scores away from its usual targets.  “[P]arents, quite frankly, are the problem,” he said.

Nevertheless, there remains a heated debate about what the correct level of testing in America should be.

The SAT is clearly going to remain an important indicator in determining whether or not an individual should be accepted into a particular college.

The disagreement is over the degree to which it should be reformed, if at all.

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