The much venerated and widely depended upon SAT is looking a little shabby these days. This is partly due to the knee-jerk reaction of colleges and universities toward their academic rankings. Oh, those academic rankings – top of the heap, head of the class – they matter. There is no doubt that they do. They matter to potential students, their parents, their guidance counselors, the brightest and best of professors and perhaps most importantly, wealthy alumni donors.
They matter so much, in fact, that a little underhanded dealing is not outside the realm of reality in the hallowed halls of academia. And this is not a new dilemma; rather, it is morphing into a pervasive one. As far back as 2009, Baylor University in Waco Texas, no stranger to scandal, was called on the carpet for offering financial payment to already admitted freshmen to retake the SAT to improve their scores. The monetary prize was a $300 credit which could be used at the campus bookstore AND $1,000 a year in financial aid for any freshman who raised his score a minimum of 50 points. So what does that do to the credibility and dignity of the SAT and scores achieved prior to admission – nothing good. Some things shouldn’t be for sale, folks. We could all do better if we get to take a test over and over again and get money for doing it. Money talks. It tends to be a powerful incentive to do a lot of things, some of them not so ethical.
Baylor, in the meantime, maintained the stance that it had done nothing wrong. It even published the fact that its freshman score rose by a conglomerate 10 points which helped the university’s U.S. News and World Report rankings. Critics were not impressed. The National Association for College Admission Counseling called Baylor out and demanded an examination of SAT scores and how they were being used in college admissions and distribution of financial aid. The question of fairness was raised. A lot of Baylor sophomores, juniors and seniors would probably have liked to have been on the receiving end of a hefty bookstore credit and $1000 in aid too, but that circumstance was not afforded to them.
But enough about Baylor. Let’s fast forward to 2016 and all things trendy, relevant and juicy. First, you should know that Baylor is not the only college or university that has fallen victim to SAT fear along the way. Emory University in Atlanta, among a significant number of others, was embroiled in some similar faulty decision making a while back, and a lot of presidents, provosts and deans seem to be SAT nervous these days. What are they afraid of? Can Johnny not read, write and reason? If not, how did he even pass the SAT and get admitted to college? Well, here’s the thing: Renaissance Learning reported recently that research it had conducted determined that the average college freshman reads at the seventh grade level. Let’s pause for a moment while that sinks in. Can you say, “Ouch!” That’s right – seventh grade level. The very next question to bombard your psyche should be, “Does that mean the SAT is written at the seventh grade reading level?” Well, the Kaplan prep program is not busy and successful for no good reason.
Renaissance Learning’s latest report on American education included a quote from Dr. Sandra Stotsky of the University of Arkansas about both college preparatory standards at the secondary level and requirements and demands at the collegiate entry level which she considered “inferior”. Dr. Stotsky found that freshmen entering colleges and universities had not been prepared with materials that offered sufficient “difficulty and complexity” and that university professors weren’t even requiring freshmen to actually read at the college level. Which is probably judicious since – let me remember now why; oh yes – A LOT OF THEM CAN’T.
So good guys that they are, the College Board redesigned its SAT College Entrance Exam and rolled it out in March of this year. The primary, indicative remark from students taking the new version is that it is “straightforward”. Might that be code for not difficult or complex? One report about the test mentioned that it focused less on vocabulary words. Could it be that students reading on a seventh grade level do not possess a plethora of them? Additionally, students do not lose points for guessing the wrong answer on the new version. This smacks, of course, of multiple guess instead of reasoned, logical , informed multiple choice. With this current version, there are fewer questions: 154 down from the previous 171. Also, students now have a choice to write the essay or not though, admittedly, Kaplan continues to encourage students to write the essay and advises them to write a “good, structured essay” and to vary “word choice and sentence structure”. Here’s hoping they can.
David Coleman, President and Chief Executive Office of the College Board, was quoted as saying that “the redesign of the test is to make it much more like the work that kids are already doing in high school”. First of all, a “kid” is a baby goat and the whole point of the SAT has always been for colleges and universities to have a sound, credible, reliable measurement of a student’s fitness for work at the college level and his potential to remain in college and ultimately be successful there.
Colleges and universities want high academic rankings across the board, including incoming SAT scores. Alumni want that too…and parents…and sought after professors. The College Board evidently understands this. Enough said.
Susanna Nitski is a contract and freelance writer who lives in Chesapeake, Virginia and is a graduate of the University of Virginia. In 2010, she made the difficult decision to depart teaching to pursue her fondest passion – writing, and has been engaged in producing all sorts of print and media material including textbooks, coffee table books, memoirs, ghost writing, an unpublished novel and business writing.