Opinion

New SAT offers rude awakening for unsuspecting

The impending change to the format of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) has left teachers, parents, and students scratching their heads, wondering what impact it will have on the way school is taught. Whatever their ultimate importance to our adult lives, SAT scores become matters of great concern and anxiety for parents and students, particularly during this season of college admission.

And just as many of those students, parents and educators have begun to feel that they had a handle on the so-called BIG TEST, the College Entrance Examination Board which owns the SAT has announced dramatic changes to the format, effective in the spring of 2005 and this will affect students who are now high school sophomores or younger.

The new SAT, in brief, will become more oriented to student achievement rather than student ability, changing from a test of general reasoning abilities to a test of what kids learn in school. Gone will be the traditional two-part testing of verbal and mathematical reasoning, omitting completely, for example, the section on analogies. Instead, the test will have one section each on reading, writing, grammar and short essay composition and arithmetic, going beyond basic algebra and geometry to include material usually covered in advanced algebra courses. A perfect score will change from 1600 to 2400.

Say Gaston Caperton III, President of the College Board, “This [new] test is really going to create a revolution in the schools.”

What prompted this change? Certainly, there are a variety of factors, some of those within the world of college admission politics itself. But, undeniably, part of this major revision is an attempt by the College board to “fix” a disconnect between what college admissions officers look for in a student and what college professors actually want.

Analogies on the current SAT test a student’s ability to relate in the abstract one thing to another. Similar items are often found on traditional IQ tests, yet it is often hard for students to see the level of transfer between such analogies and their daily lives. Over the years, many students have opted to take the American College Test (ACT), the SAT’s competitor, now accepted by almost every college nationwide because of its focus on achievement. Its content is more relevant to what kids are actually studying in high school.

Annie Wright School (AWS), and other independent schools, have long distinguished themselves by paying attention not only to test-taking performance, but also to the overall level of preparedness of students for college work and college life. Feedback from alumni indicates that our schools’ emphasis on organization and rigor has served them well. The new SAT with its emphasis on writing, grammar and advanced mathematical thinking dovetails nicely with what is at the heart of what we teach—self expression, elegant thinking, and the ability to draw from a variety of sources to support one’s developing opinion.

Like Caperton of the College Board, we believe this is, indeed, more in keeping with what students will encounter in college, in their careers and in their lives. When students have exposure to many points of view and many kinds of writing, they receive education for true understanding and true meaning.

I applaud a greater emphasis on algebraic reasoning both on the new SAT and in high schools. At Annie Wright, all students take beginning algebra at the eighth grade level. We are well aware, however, that research supports the need for Algebra I to be revisited by most students in the ninth grade, perhaps from different points of view, so that students can move beyond short-term memorization of formulas to a deeper understanding of why algebra makes sense. Without a firm and deep foundational knowledge of basic algebra, all subsequent mathematics instruction may founder.

AWS graduate, Amy Nam, now working for the Chase/JP Morgan Company in New York City, sums this up in a recent letter to our math department chair: “I remember all of those days in Algebra II and Calculus when I felt like, ‘ow is any of this going to help me?’ or ‘why am I taking t his class because I’m never going to use it in real life.’ I now consider it poetic irony that the subject and classes that I tried to avoid the most are now totally integrated into my career and the field that I love. Calculus, statistics, and a firm understanding of mathematical principals play a huge role in where am today and where I want to go in the future.”

As debate about the new SAT heats up, we at AWS look forward to continuing the dialogue with our colleagues in both the public and private sector. We are ready and anxious to take up the challenge that the new SAT will inspire for both teaching and learning, and we look forward to seeing how our students fare. In conclusion, however, we underscore that all tests are only as good as what they are designed to measure. Changes to the SAT may be undeniably significant news, but the BIG TEST, in any format, will remain only a part of the picture that colleges consider when they admit a student. When all is said and done, one’s character, abiding passions, and contributions to community matter in college admissions just as much as they matter in life.

Sound Off is a public forum. Jayasri Ghosh is head of the Annie Wright School in Tacoma.

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