Featured

Why the SAT needs to stay

Or, Debunking the arguments of the standardized testing haters.

When COVID-19 essentially derailed the 2020 school year, one of the casualties was SAT and ACT testing. Both tests were forced to cancel several exams, leaving students scrambling. Many colleges and universities reacted by making temporary changes to their admissions process: “test optional” became a buzzword across higher education.

As the country moves forward and schools return to some semblance of normalcy, many of those colleges and universities are keeping their admissions “test optional.” Critics of the SAT and ACT–and there are many, including a group that recently asked U.S. News to drop test scores from their college ranking profiles–have pounced on this opportunity, calling for the dismissal of the tests for college admissions completely. They argue that the SAT favors wealthy white students over disadvantaged groups. They say that success on the SAT has no correlation to a student’s eventual success in college. In our age of social media echo chambers and cursory interest in facts and reasoning, these arguments would seem to ring true. However, there are a number of flaws with the arguments against the SAT and ACT.

Does the SAT work against disadvantaged students?

One of the longest and most tired arguments against the SAT is that the test is racially biased and that using the test as a college admission tool favors white students.

When you see arguments attempting to prove that the test itself is somehow racially biased, the detractors often use specific question examples from SAT tests from decades past. College Board, for all their actual faults, have worked diligently to remove any potential biases from the test questions. The Great Global Conversation reading passage, for example, highlights a meaningful speech or other primary document from history, and most of the examples offered involve civil rights or gender equality. The analogy questions (car is to road as train is to rails, for example), long the target of critics, are long gone, taken away in the 2015-2016 redesign. The math questions specifically target mathematical principles, with word problems carefully constructed as to be as neutral as possible. While there may have been a valid argument at one time about the biases of the tests, those have been made moot by College Board’s efforts to combat them.

And while test itself is often the target of critics, its use by college and universities is often decried as racially biased. The argument states that, because wealthy students have the wherewithal to purchase expensive exam prep, those wealthy, primarily white students see a disproportionate number of high scores. This has been the mantra for SAT critics for many years now, and it’s been echoed by think tanks, politicians, and college admissions boards without much vetting as to the validity of the argument. In fact, there are several problems with this premise.

First, there is more free assistance to improve on the SAT or ACT than there ever has been. College Board’s partnership with Khan Academy has helped countless students prepare for and improve on the SAT. The ACT has also introduced free online help for those taking that test, and they’ve also partnered with Kaplan to help students find other potential resources. Determination and the desire to improve are not racially dependent qualities, and these free resources help to level the playing field for prep.

Next, critics don’t offer any sort of alternative to the SAT, other than for colleges to rely more on a student’s grade point average and personal essays. Unfortunately, GPAs can be subjective. If one student attends an academically rigorous high school and achieves a 3.8, while another student goes to a less intense program and earns a 4.0, should the 4.0 student be given preference? Even when it comes to Advanced Placement exams or other higher level classes, not all of them are taught the same. One teacher may run their class like a college program, requiring students to do college-level work. Another may run their AP course the way they’d run a normal class in that subject, making it less about the discipline and more about a mark on a report card. Across the country, states don’t have any sort of standardization of method or educational requirements. This means that, out of the thousands of applicants who report 4.0 GPAs to their colleges of choice, the students’ actual abilities and development are very likely vastly different.

So use the personal essay and the extracurriculars to evaluate a student, say the naysayers. Sadly, thousands of wealthy students–the same ones who would potentially have the resources to get expensive exam prep–pay essay coaches to either help them write or, more nefariously, to actually write their application essays. Because there are no established security measures to ensure that a student’s work is their own, relying on the personal essay can (and very likely would) favor advantaged students to a much larger degree than standardized tests do. In fact, in a Newsweek opinion piece on July 13, Helen Raleigh argues for the validity of standardized tests and how they actually help disadvantaged students by allowing them to compensate for other students’ family connections or intergenerational wealth. She addresses the idea that essays are a better tool for admissions departments by both citing a study that calls that premise into question and by making the claim that personal essays and similar tools favor privileged students to a much larger degree than any standardized test would.

Raleigh, as an immigrant herself, makes a compelling case for how standardized tests actually help disadvantaged students by levelling the playing field considerably. Responding to claims by the head of the American Federation of Teachers that standardized testing, like the SAT, has no educational value and encourages teachers to teach to the test, Raleigh makes a systematic and effective defense. She makes a compelling case for the value of a standardized measuring stick that can allow underrepresented groups to overcome a lack of family wealth or legacy.

Does the SAT give any indication of college success?

The short answer is that it seems to.

Raleigh addresses this in her piece, citing studies from Science and other journals to show how success on the SAT can be an indicator of future success. Why would this be true? One answer to this might be that, because success on the SAT can take hard work and dedication, success on the test might also be a good indicator of a student’s willingness to pursue that success.

Correlating with these findings was a survey conducted by the faculty of the University of California system. While critics railed against the supposed evils of the test, the university faculty urged the system to continue using the SAT, as the test gave one of the best indicators as to whether a student was ready for success in college, especially for underrepresented groups.

In fact, the report insists that test results actually help identify many talented Latino, black and low-income students who otherwise might be rejected because their high school grades alone were not high enough.

Gordon and Burke, EdSource (Feb. 4, 2020)

While there will always be those who naysay the SAT, the facts indicate that it has real value for both students and institutions of higher learning. Rather than eliminating such a valuable tool, more effort should directed at making this tool as useful as possible for as many students as possible.

Featured

Post-COVID Effects of Online Learning

How has the year of online learning and interrupted academic work impacted our students?

It seems like another lifetime ago. COVID-19 started to get coverage in the news in late 2019, but most people didn’t give it much thought. After all, we’d had swine flu and bird flu scares that didn’t impact us much, so why worry about one more? Then, in the early spring of 2020, everything changed. Schools closed their doors with teachers and administrators scrambling to react. And everyone became far more acquainted with online learning than ever before.

Photo by DICSON on Unsplash

“She just didn’t do well with online learning.”

But what has been the impact of the seismic shift in learning that ran its course over the past year? Anecdotally, the biggest effect we’ve seen is that many students now have significant gaps in their skill base. While some students (and school systems) adapted well to the new normal, many did not. The most common complaint we’ve heard from parents over the last school year and into the summer has been, “My student didn’t like doing classes online.” The online format–whether over Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, or another platform–can be a real asset when used effectively, but many students focus and achieve more when their learning is in person.

Photo by Thomas Park on Unsplash

Math has been the most significant skill gap

Of all the students’ subjects that have been affected by the months of COVID protocols, math stands out. At the end of the 2019-2020 school year, districts were scrambling to create an online curriculum–much of which ended up being a glorified year-in-review. With the ongoing COVID absences, contact tracing, and instability many students experienced, the overall math competency suffered most. Most of the parents seeking academic support for their students throughout this school year were focused squarely on math.

Math is often the area of most concern for students and parents in a normal year, but students’ reactions to online learning only exacerbated the usual issues.

Tutoring can be a solution

Fortunately, students can get the help they need to maintain and excel. Working with a tutor can help a student work through the concepts they may not have understood in the classroom, complete their assignments, and prepare for exams.

Featured

“So I got my PSAT score. Now what?”

This week, students across the country will receive their PSAT scores. But both students and parents are often unclear about what those scores mean, the importance (or lack of it!) of those scores, and what the next steps should be. So let’s delve in a bit to the PSAT and those results.

What makes for a good PSAT score?

If you’re a sophomore, then the PSAT can be a good indicator of your starting point on the SAT. Did you score a 920 or better? Then your chances of scoring at or above the national average on the SAT, especially with some preparation, are good. If you’re a junior, then a PSAT score of 1010 or above is considered a “good” score, a 1160 or above would be “great,” and a score of 1290 or above is considered “excellent.” But none of those scores guarantees success on the SAT.

The percentile conundrum

As I talk with students looking to start preparation for the SAT, I find that many of them look more at the percentile score they received on the PSAT than their actual scaled score. Percentile score indicates a student’s ranking among their peers. A student in the 90th percentile, for example, means that the student has scored higher than 90% of the other test takers in the sample. So when I ask a parent how their student did on the PSAT, I often hear, “She was in the 85th percentile,” rather than a score.

The biggest issue with this is that percentiles on the PSAT are not good apples-to-apples predictors of what a student might get on the SAT. Because students across the country–many of whom have no interest in doing well on the test–are taking the PSAT every year, the percentile scores are skewed, especially for those students getting average to high scores. So while it’s great that you scored in the 90th percentile or above, it doesn’t mean as much as it would on an actual SAT.

Does the PSAT matter?

The least complicated answer is “It might.” One of the reasons for the PSAT, other than to give students a chance to practice an SAT, is to give juniors the chance to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship. The NMS isn’t a large scholarship; it pays around $2000 to winners. But the bigger payoff of being a NMS semi-finalist, finalist, or winner is the opportunity for scholarship money from colleges.

Schools generally like to tout how many NMS semi-finalists, finalists, and winners they have in their incoming freshman classes, and they are willing to give financial incentives to bring those students to their schools. Some schools, including the University of Alabama, offer full-ride scholarships simply by qualifying as a semi-finalist. You don’t even need to win! So for sophomores, your PSAT score this year can give you an idea of how much work you need to do to put yourself in that category.

The qualifying score for becoming a semi-finalist for the NMS varies state to state. In Idaho, students usually need to score in the low- to mid-1400s (out of 1520) to hit the cutoff score. This is a far easier standard than states such as California, where students need to get a nearly perfect score to qualify.

And if you don’t qualify for the NMS, don’t despair! I’ve had students in the past miss the PSAT cutoff by a hair, only to later get an elite score on the SAT or ACT. So while the PSAT and the National Merit Scholarship can be important, the ultimate goal should be to hit a great score on the actual SAT or ACT.

But my PSAT wasn’t close to my goal! What do I do?

The good news is that, regardless of how you scored on the PSAT, you can absolutely improve! With help from an expert on the exam, you can learn how to master the SAT and put yourself in a position to be accepted at your goal schools. While you may not have gotten a score you’re happy with on the PSAT, just remember that it’s just a dry run! You can do better, and we can help!

So your next step should be to think about your goals for the SAT or ACT. The next official ACT is in February, and the next SAT is in March. The holiday break is a great time to begin preparing for your official test and to take the next steps in achieving your goals!

Featured

Putting the “Smart” Back in Smartphones

When I was working as a classroom teacher in the early 2000s, cell phone use by students was a relatively new phenomenon. My policy–as well as my school’s–was that cell phone use was unnecessary during school hours. Students who were caught using their phones at school had them taken away and given to the administrative office, much to the chagrin of the students involved.

Fast forward to 2019. While some teachers and parents are still fighting the tide of technology, nearly every student from elementary school on up carries a cell phone. Fortunately, if used prudently, smartphones can be great tools for educational purposes.

Photo by Neil Soni on Unsplash

Homework tracker

Many students still use paper planners to keep track of their tests, assignments, and other obligations, but cell phones are increasingly becoming the mode of choice to organize students’ calendars. Because students carry their phones everywhere, they are able to check their upcoming work quickly and easily, and they can continually adjust as new events arise.

Reminder setting

For students of all ages, smartphones can be used to help remind the students to carry out tasks throughout the day. Your child can be reminded to get a parent release signed, to be sure his/her pencil bag is filled, or to attend their weekly improv club meeting.

Photo by stem.T4L on Unsplash

Fact finding

Of course, cell phones put the knowledge of the world in students’ hands. If a teacher mentions a topic or term that is unfamiliar, a quick Google search can fill in the information gaps.

Taking board or screen photos

Teachers can sometimes move quickly through material in the classroom. Any time a student feels confused about that last trigonometry problem or the timeline of Christianity’s progression through the ancient world, she or he can snap a quick picture of the board to either revisit the information or to show it to a tutor, like the wonderful ones working at Huntington.

Note taking

Typing–or Swyping–is generally much faster for today’s students than writing by hand. Given that, smartphones can be a great way of taking important notes from class. Using apps like Evernote or OneNote can make recording and using ideas from class much more efficient.

Apps, apps, apps!

Finally, many classrooms now use specific educational apps that tie in to what’s being done in class. Teachers now routinely use document sharing apps, like Dropbox, as well as study apps, such as Quizlet, to administer their classes. College Board, the maker of the SAT, offers an SAT Question of the Day app. Smartphones make it easy for students to utilize these apps on the go.

Photo by stem.T4L on Unsplash

Of course, as with all technology, parents should set expectations with their children when it comes to cell phone use. Talking with your students about the dangers of the online world is always a good idea. But used correctly, cell phones can be a great way to enhance students’ academic experience, putting the smart back in smartphones!

Featured

Developing Critical Thinking at Home

One of my kids came up to me a few weeks ago, and it was obvious he was itching to deliver some information.

“Everyone should be taking cold showers,” he declared triumphantly. When I asked how he’d come to this decision, he said, “A study has proven it.” Intrigued, I asked about his research. “I read a story on the Internet about a rich guy who felt like he was healthier because of cold showers, so he got some scientists to do a study. They found out he was right.”

I saw this as an opportunity.

“So he had a belief, and he paid for a study to be conducted,” I replied, “and the study that he paid for confirmed his belief?” Yes, my son nodded enthusiastically. “Do you see any potential problems with that?” He shook his head as a confused look crossed his face. So we talked a bit more about the reliability of single sources–particularly those on the Internet–and he agreed to do more digging to see what others said on the subject.

Photo by Chandler Cruttenden on Unsplash

Now, to be fair, I didn’t have an opinion one way or another when it comes to the ideal shower temperature (we found out that there are lots of opinions on the topic, but many studies have shown lukewarm to be the best, coupled with a skin moisturizer afterward). But I do have strong feelings about teaching my kids the value of critical thinking.

Just as there are seemingly countless opinions about our ideal shower temperature, there are myriad articles about the necessity of teaching our children the value of critical thinking. Predictably, the tips and findings of many of those articles overlap, so I’ll give you the best bits here.

It’s never too early to help your kids develop critical thinking skills.

Preschoolers may not be ready to learn the difference between a major premise and a minor premise, but they can be taught to think more critically. The website parentingscience.com, a great general resource for parents and teaching, urges parents to start working with their kids early, encouraging them to restate ideas in their own words. The article also stresses the need to talk with children about biases and how those biases affect what we hear and read.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Ask the right questions.

In his insightful TED Talk, Brian Oshiro encourages parents to ask follow-up questions to their kids. Instead of focusing on the “what” of a subject, ask kids “how” or “why” something is true. “How do you know?” is an easy way of teaching kids how to think through their sources and beliefs.

Photo by Laurenz Kleinheider on Unsplash

In a recent Forbes magazine article, author Helen Lee Bouygues urges parents to have their children question the media and individual sources. Especially in our age of social media, kids need to be shown the value of confirming their information with multiple sources–what a Stanford University study called “lateral reading.”

Encourage emotional intelligence.

Because much of the misinformation in cyberspace is designed to evoke feelings of outrage or frustration, it’s also important that parents encourage children to learn to manage those emotions.

Making the home a safe place for kids to express and discuss their emotions is key, as is providing good emotional role models for them. Showing kids that emotions can be freely talked about and managed can go a long way to avoiding knee-jerk reactions to false or biased information.

Photo by Lou Levit on Unsplash

For many of us as parents, the 21st century can be a scary place. Because so many outlets are working for our children’s attention, it’s vital that we equip our kids with the skill of discernment. Fortunately, parents can take the lead, helping kids learn how to properly navigate the stormy Internet sea.