- The Washington Times - Friday, March 11, 2005

How amazing to find 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 K-12 teachers who make their livelihoods trying to do the same thing for far less.

SAT-prep courses collect $310 million a year, up from $100 million a few years ago, as the major players have convinced more and more young Americans 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 over years of education.

The new test with its added 45 minutes now takes nearly four hours, including a new essay requirement and enhanced math section. Its designers have claimed it meet the objections to the old test: that it was basically flawed, unfair to poorer students and overly relied upon by universities that have found it a convenient way to thin out applicants. But is that claim of improvement accurate for the new version?

The same objections persist and those making them — including major test-preparation companies like the Princeton Review — contend 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, not the least the differences in individuals even when basically of the same intelligence. Some students don’t handle tests of this kind 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 can be manipulated by those who know how to take it. In other words, it isn’t knowledge that is being measured but student test-taking ability. Not doing well on the test, it is claimed — with ample evidence — 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, in 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 rather than the more modern literature, 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 that those taking it are beginning to regard it as more a game played on the way to a college education than a serious predictor of the ability to do college work.

In a senior year filled with challenges and the uncertainties of moving on into the at least semi-adult world of higher education, many are seeking schools that emphasize the SAT 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, remains basically unfair to those who either have not had the emphasis given 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 of a student (or his parents) shelling out $900 to improve his chances with the new SAT. Some 300,000 students will take the exam this spring. Not all will have had the benefit of specialized advice. But many will have, 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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