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Dumbing Down The SAT Perfectly Sums Up The State Of American Education

students taking test at desks in gym
Image CreditUSAF/Yasuo Osakabe

These pointless changes to the SAT will let schools off the hook, and allow College Board to make money and virtue signal at the same time.

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In a recent announcement, College Board expressed plans to make significant changes to the SAT that will go into effect in 2024. The test will be fully digital and shortened from roughly three hours to two. The reading passages will be made shorter and the math section will allow the use of a calculator throughout. In short, the test will be easier for both the testers and the person being tested.

According to College Board, the changes are meant to address concerns with access because of Covid and the lack of equity in the SAT, which some allege favors certain racial and socioeconomic groups. The complaint about equity has led a large number of colleges to stop using SAT scores as part of their admissions. Evidently, College Board is hoping that making the test easier and shorter will narrow these performance gaps and restore the usefulness of the SAT as an assessment for college readiness.

However, by working off false premises, College Board is coming to the wrong conclusion. All these proposed changes will simply lower the standard for everyone, hardly address problems with equity, and make the SAT all the more useless.

Any teacher or “data coach” who analyzes test results can attest to seeing this kind of logic play out in most state standardized tests. In the beginning, these tests were more challenging and designed to assess higher-level thinking skills. Over time, however, wave after wave of low scores and obvious performance gaps cause the test creators to lower standards dramatically. Finally, the test becomes a pointless hurdle for teachers and students to jump through, inviting calls for a new standardized test that actually says something.

Dumbing down a test is often subtle, but there are a few ways to spot it: make passages shorter with lower reading levels, simplify the math problems, allow a calculator, dictionary, and even provide some basic strategies for working through the test. Along with these changes, the scoring is often needlessly complicated with a series of formulas and algorithms replete with multipliers and random variables to supposedly indicate whether a student “meets” or “masters” expectations. Hence, standardized tests usually fill a whole sheet with a multitude of categories, bar graphs, tables, and color-coded labels to communicate a tester’s final score.

This was the evolution of Texas’s standardized test, the STAAR, which started in 2013. In its earlier days, it was highly regarded in terms of quality, and many students did poorly on it. These were the days of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), so mass failure on a campus often meant the threat of a school or district receiving a failing grade and being reconstituted. Naturally, this led to wailing and gnashing of teeth among administrators and educators, who were now having to shape up their instruction and pay attention to data.

To make matters worse, the data from STAAR indicated serious gaps between students of different races. Thus, even the more affluent campuses that had relatively high pass rates were still given low marks because the few students who failed were largely students of color. Thus, for the sake of equity, there was an effort among all campuses to teach to the bottom and get these few students to pass while stronger students were largely neglected.

After so many years, though, STAAR scores mysteriously improved. Most students were passing it now, and those who didn’t would usually pull it out in subsequent retests. Principals and teachers patted themselves on the back for the improvement, although it was never clear what led to the change. Few people dared to suggest the test itself might have become easier even though this was the most logical explanation. After all, even while STAAR scores were improving, other non-state standardized tests like the ACT and SAT were steadily declining.

Now the SAT is abandoning any pretense of objectivity. Sure enough, the scores on the test will likely rise, gaps between students will likely narrow, and college admissions offices may feel more comfortable using SAT scores to gauge incoming students’ ability to succeed.

But all this will do is hide the ugly truth: the quality of American education as a whole is declining. Kids are learning less both in the high school and college levels, but the “data” will indicate otherwise. They may not be able to read very well, write a grammatically correct sentence, or solve most math problems, but their scores indicate that they’re just as smart or smarter than other classes. While there seems to be less of an achievement gap, that’s only because we’ve mostly eliminated the idea of achievement.

All the same, many will buy into the lie and treat this as a cause to celebrate. It lets educators and schools off the hook, encourages students to go to college, and allows College Board to make more money and virtue signal at the same time. If it means students suffer by wasting more time and money in school, so be it. They can brag that they are the “best-educated generation in American history.”

Real improvement will only come when people are ready to cut through this false narrative, form a sober, truthful assessment of what is happening, and respond accordingly. The SAT and other standardized tests used to help with this by assessing academic ability and offering an opportunity for those of any background to distinguish themselves.

Unfortunately, identity politics has reversed this. Now testing companies like College Board are actively gaslighting the public by keeping them in the dark about how students are really doing. This lulls parents and educators into thinking that their children are fine and that educational reform isn’t all that urgent.

But the reality is that improving the quality of learning for all students is quite urgent. The lowering of academic standards is happening everywhere, and the new SAT reflects this. It falls on parents to push back, not only by voicing their concerns to district and campus leaders and electing competent politicians, but by taking on a bigger role in their children’s education and becoming teachers themselves. 

By pushing equity over quality, schools and testing companies are essentially admitting defeat. If parents and educators hope to win the battle of hearts and minds on the issue of education, they will have to lead the charge themselves and find a different test to measure today’s students.