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SATs still favor best-prepared
by Dan K. Thomasson
Scripps Howard News Service


March 12, 2005

Washington - How amazing to discover that the new SAT, so widely anticipated, is making bigger bucks than ever for those who teach nervous students how to take it. That is, the after-school instructors who charge worried parents hundreds of dollars to relieve their anxieties about getting their children into the right institution - too bad for all those regular teachers who make their livelihoods from K through 12 trying to do the same thing for far less.

SAT-prep courses are collecting $310 million a year, up from $100 million a few years ago, as the major players have convinced more and more young Americans that they can do better on a test that was supposed to be immune to short-term improvement, one designed to encompass what has been learned during years of education.

The new test - with its added 45 minutes, stretching the test period to nearly four hours including a new essay requirement and enhanced math section - has been heralded by its designers as meeting the objections to the old one, namely, that it was basically flawed, unfair to poorer students and overly relied upon by many universities that have found it a convenient way to thin out applicants. But is that an accurate claim for the new version?

The same objections persist and those making them - including the major test-preparation companies like the Princeton Review - contend that the exam remains unhealthy in many respects. It is of course the problem with all standardized tests that try to measure such a broad scope of knowledge. There are numerous factors that apply here, not the least of which are the differences in individuals even when they are basically of the same intelligence. Some students don't handle tests of this nature well. Others are strong in verbal concepts and weak in math, no matter how many courses they take, and vice versa.

The Princeton Review people have contended forever that the SAT is an exam that can be manipulated by those who know how to take it. In other words, it isn't the knowledge that is being measured but the student's test-taking ability. Not doing well on the test, it is claimed - with ample evidence to support that contention - doesn't mean the taker is dumb and will not succeed in college. Conversely, doing well doesn't equate with brilliance. Both are just examples of poor or good test-taking techniques.

For instance, regarding the new essay section, students are taught to write large, thereby filling up more pages and presenting an illusion of length and depth. That's hardly a new trick. They also receive instructions on what books to refer to in their writing, using classic literature rather than the more modern examples, and to punctuate their writing with more sophisticated words - writing "metropolis" for "city" - despite Mark Twain's admonition against just such choices.

More threatening to the College Board, which owns the SAT, is the fact that those taking it are beginning to regard it as more a game that has to be played on the way to a college education than a serious experience established to predict their ability to do college work. In a senior year filled with challenges and the uncertainties of moving on into at least the semi-adult world of higher education, many are seeking out schools where the stress on the SAT is less. Throughout the West and Midwest, students are switching to the ACT, which they contend is fairer.

Remaining as the single largest flaw in an increasingly test-happy approach to education at all levels is that the SAT, new or not, still is basically unfair to those who either have not had the emphasis placed on it in more affluent public and private schools and whose parents can't afford the rising cost of buying a better score. Major U.S. prep schools build their endowments on making certain most of their students do well on the SAT and are admitted to the schools with the best reputations. They teach to it from the earliest grades. Now some of that is being adopted by public schools in wealthier districts. Left out, of course, are the inner-city high schools.

A recent news story cited an example where a student (or his parents) had shelled out $900 to improve his chances with the new SAT. Some 300,000 students will sit down to take the exam this spring. Not all will have had the benefit of specialized advice. But a whole lot will, making what was a cottage industry big-time business. It is a flawed system.


Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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