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

Strategies for Paired Passages

When it comes to the SAT or ACT Reading section, one of the biggest challenges for students is the paired passage. Some students call it the dual passage. Others call it the side-by-side. The vast majority of students call it trouble! But using some good, simple strategies can make it much easier to navigate.

What is a “paired passage”?

If you’ve not yet encountered a paired passage, they’re essentially what you might expect. Two short essays, speeches, or stories are featured next to one another, and they have some sort of connection. They may be agreeing on a topic. They could feature pro and con positions on a topic. Or they could be only tangentially connected by a subject addressed in both passages. In any case, one of our jobs is to figure out this connection. But more on that later…

A paired passage on the SAT typically looks something like this.

This particular set of passages comes from a recent test, and it features speeches from Paul Robeson and Jackie Robinson. Paired passages don’t always feature historical documents, but when they do, the subject is almost always civil rights or women’s rights issues.

How do I attack a paired passage?

When most students are confronted with a dual passage, they make the mistake of plunging right in and trying to decipher it. As with any reading passage, you must have a plan! And Step 1 of that plan should be to read the “blurb” at the beginning. SAT and ACT reading passages generally give you a bit of information about the passage you’re about to tackle. Always take the time to read what they give you.

In our passage here, the blurb gives us huge (and immensely helpful!) context clues for what we’re about to read. We learn that the author of Passage 1, Paul Robeson, was an actor/singer commenting on remarks he made previously. The blurb also fills us in on the global situation at the time–namely, that the U.S. and then-communist Russia were at odds. Finally, the blurb lets us know that Jackie Robinson, the speaker in Passage 2, was called by the House of Representatives’ Un-American Activities Committee to address Robeson’s remarks.

We haven’t even read the first word of the actual passages, and we already know what to expect! We should expect that Passage 1 (Robeson) will be speaking about the Soviet Union and the United States, and that Passage 2 (Robinson) will likely be presenting a different opinion. Any historical context you know from your own studying of the Cold War will likely make this blurb even more poignant and helpful.

Step 2: Divide and Conquer

Ok, so we’ve gotten the blurb down. Now, we’re going to divide the paired passages in half. First, we’ll read Passage 1 as we would any reading passage. Read and annotate, looking for the main idea of the paragraphs, as well as the passage as a whole.

After going through Passage 1, we’ve discovered that Robeson (probably controversially) said that he loved the Soviet Union. In 1949, that was pretty incendiary! He then put the statement in a racial/political context: he loved the Soviets because they fought for freedom for all, including for black men and women. He wanted to love America, but the racial policies and attitudes of America kept him from having the same loyalty to the United States as he felt for Russia.

Now that we’ve gotten that down, our next step will be to answer the questions related to Passage 1.

Questions 11-14 deal with Passage 1 directly, so we’ll hit those first. Once we answer those, we’ll go back and read Passage 2, looking for the main idea, but also looking for how it relates to Passage 1.

We’ll then answer the questions directly related to Passage 2. Our final step will be to answer the last few questions (17-20), since they will compare or contrast the ideas in the two passages.

Let’s Review

So to review the overall plan:

Step 1: Read the “blurb”

Step 2: Read and annotate Passage 1

Step 3: Answer the questions related to Passage 1

Step 4: Read and annotate Passage 2

Step 5: Answer the questions related to Passage 2

Final Step: Finish the questions that relate to both passages

Paired passages can be daunting. But with a little strategy and planning, you can have success!

Featured

What is the SAT QAS?

(And is it something you need?)

Some of the questions I often get during or after the exam prep process are “What is the SAT QAS? And should I order it?” So let’s spend a moment to talk about what the QAS is and why it can be incredibly useful for exam prep students.

A QAS (Question and Answer Service) from the SAT is a fancy term for a copy of the test a student has taken. College Board, the makers of the SAT, release copies of the actual test from March, May, and October every year. (The ACT also releases three copies of the test each year in April, June, and December.)

The QAS, which currently costs an additional $18 to order, gives a student all of the questions and answers from a particular exam. This is different from the SAS (Student Answer Service). The SAS can be obtained for any SAT, but only gives the correct answers, not the questions that go along with them.

The QAS itself is a printed copy of the exam, just as it appeared on test day. Students are able to access both their selected answers and the correct answers online through their College Board account. From there, they can choose individual question numbers to see both the question and their response. Past QAS copies can often be obtained with a quick Google search.

The QAS can be exceptionally useful for students who are planning to take the test again in the future. Debriefing from practice tests is always a good exercise for a student training to take the SAT. Debriefing from an official test can be just as useful. Even if a student is well versed in the tactics of the SAT, seeing differences from one test to another can be enlightening.

If you plan to take the SAT this fall, be sure to sign up for the QAS as well. Going over your results could make the difference when you take the test a second or third time!

Featured

Summer of Exam Prep

It’s Spring! The sun is beginning to peek out more often. Flowers are out. COVID cases are finally decreasing, and vaccinations are continuing to rise. Before long, the new normal will hopefully start looking a whole lot like actual normal. And for soon-to-be juniors, it’s time to begin thinking about preparing for the fall SAT or ACT. Our strong recommendation is that they make this summer the Summer of Exam Prep.

Many schools and school counselors advise students to plan to take the SAT/ACT during the spring of their junior year. This can work, but there are distinct advantages to prepping over the summer for one of the fall tests.

Summer = Fewer Obligations

First, students generally have more flexible schedules during the summer. Though some families will have vacation outings and other trips, students can usually devote more time to exam prep during the summer. Students who prep during the school year often have to work around sports schedules and other extracurriculars. Students who prep during the summer usually don’t have those sorts of constraints. This makes it easier for students to schedule sessions and even pack an exam prep program into a shorter time period, while still getting the maximum benefit.

Summer = Less Academic Stress

Another benefit of summer prep is that students don’t have to juggle their time and attention between their exam prep and difficult academic work. Junior year is one of the toughest years for students. They generally take some of their toughest AP/dual-credit courses during their junior years. This can make it especially stressful to squeeze in exam prep for one of the spring tests.

Summer = Less Mental Slide

Finally, a great fringe benefit to doing summer exam prep is the prevention of the “summer slide.” One complaint that educators (and some students!) have about summer break is that much of the progress students gained during the school year is lost during the summer. Students usually don’t devote much of the summer to intellectual pursuits, so they are rusty and out of form when they go back to school in the fall. Working through an exam prep program during the summer allows a student to continue flexing their intellectual muscles, which makes the transition back to school that much easier.

Admittedly, working through the finer points of an SAT or ACT might not sound like a thrilling way to spend the summer. But with a team of excellent prep coaches to provide support, summer exam prep can be rewarding in myriad ways!

Featured

College Board Ends SAT Essay

This week, the College Board announced that they will be ending the use of the optional essay portion of the SAT, as well as the SAT Subject Tests.

Up until now, the essay was used by a number of schools to evaluate a student’s writing competency. The essay involved reading a news piece and then dissecting the author’s persuasive techniques. According to College Board, they are removing the essay from the test, at least in part, because of the difficulties students have had in securing test dates and locations during the COVID crisis in 2020. Streamlining the SAT’s format should make it easier for test locations to plan and make more room available for students.

The Subject Tests were used by universities, as well as departments within those schools, to evaluate readiness for specific disciplines. Students were able to take subject tests in math, U.S. history, world history, biology, physics, chemistry, literature, and foreign languages. Departments would use those scores to further differentiate applicants to their programs. The announcement this week explained that the Advanced Placement (AP) program, also run by College Board, fills the need for subject assessment.

As part of the announcement, College Board stated that they are still working toward an online version of the SAT. A trial run of online testing for AP exams last spring showed some problems with the online format. The streamlining of the SAT should allow College Board to focus on optimizing the digital form of the exam.