The war on standards — dumbing down the SAT

The College Board is once again altering the SAT. According to the Washington Post, the SAT’s writers appear to be doing two things: changing what they test and making the test easier.

To me, it sounds as if the SAT will be made easier largely by changing what it tests. For example, the Post says that students will no longer be expected to know “difficult, lesser-used vocabulary words” and “advanced mathematical concepts will disappear from the exam” (my understanding is that truly advanced mathematical concepts do not appear on the current exam).

In a way, an easier SAT makes sense. After all, college has become easier given grade-inflation, the reduction or elimination of core course requirements, and so forth.

Even so, it seems to me that colleges might still want to admit mostly students who can do non-easy things, such as correctly using difficult vocabulary words. At a minimum, colleges should want to be able to identify such students. If the SAT as we have known it did not assist colleges in this identification process — that is, if other tools such as the high school transcript were sufficient for this purpose — colleges would not still be using this tool.

What will remain after the College Board excises those difficult vocabulary words and “advanced” mathematical concepts? The SAT’s designers say they want to tailor the exam to test what students actually learn in high school.

This implies that high school students no longer learn difficult vocabulary words and advanced mathematical concepts. Distressingly, this may be true in a sense. But high schools continue to endeavor to teach these things to their better (or at a minimum, their best) students.

Thus, it appears that the College Board is tailoring the SAT to average students. But again, the exam exists to help colleges distinguish among average, above average, and top students.

No one who has been paying attention can doubt the main purpose behind the overhauling of the SAT. Members of certain minority groups perform far worse than average on the exam. This fact doesn’t prevent most colleges from admitting pre-determined levels of minority students under their race-based preferential admissions systems. But the outcomes under these preferential systems (e.g., vast disparities between the average scores of admitted black and white students), unless concealed, subject the systems to much criticism.

Dumbing down the SAT will relieve some of the pressure that results from this criticism. And, of course, it will raise self-esteem.

If dumbing down the test also defeats the purpose of administering the SAT, that’s an added bonus for those waging the war on standards. For it creates an argument in favor of eliminating this particular standard altogether.