Sunday, May 28, 2006

The New SAT's Are Harder

David S. Kahn had a column in the Wall Street Journal explaining the changes in the new SAT's and how those changes have made the tests harder. This year's results reflect those changes.

In the verbal section, the emphasis is now less on vocabulary than on reading comprehension. Intensive vocabulary drilling in the months before the exam can help but not as much as previously. Now, the best preparation is, gasp!, actually having a habit of reading.

The math section has also gotten more difficult and students have to know more math, including pre-calculus.
The math section of the test also got more challenging. The SAT used to test algebra, geometry and arithmetic. Students weren't allowed to use calculators on the original SAT, so some of those problems were simply difficult arithmetical calculations (fractions, decimals and percentages). In 1994, calculators were allowed, and the questions got a bit easier--and I watched my students' math scores jump. But last year ETS made it harder by adding pre-calculus questions, and my students have struggled.

Now there are also fewer math questions--each of which counts for more. The 54 math questions count for 11 points each now (on the 200 to 800 scale); before, there were 60 questions that counted for 10 each. So if a student gets 20 questions wrong, he effectively loses 222 points instead of the former 200.
If students are not doing as well on the tests, it is not because the tests are biased against any one ethnic group, but against those who aren't well-educated. If students don't have good reading comprehension then they aren't going to do well in college and admissions offices should have that information.
That the new SAT tests more reading comprehension than the old test did is a good thing. Colleges complain that their incoming students don't have sufficient skills to read and analyze the kind of material that their professors will assign them. I hope that the new SAT's emphasis will make students realize that you can't get much of an education if you can't read.

Maybe the decline in SAT scores will force people to notice that their children are not getting good educations. If your children don't read or do math, why would you think that they would do well on the SAT? I would love to get into a time machine and go back to 1960 and give this new SAT to high-school students back then. I suspect that they would do much better than today's students. If we want people to get good scores on the SAT, I have a suggestion. Stop complaining about how unfair the test is and do your homework.
Don't blame the tests. They're just a measuring device sending the message that kids aren't learning what they need to learn. Address that problem, not the tests.