Common Core-ification of the SAT

In The Story Behind the SAT Overhaul, College Board president David Coleman tells the New York Times what the exam will look like in a few years.

Coleman gave me what he said was a simplistic example of the kind of question that might be on this part of the exam. Students would read an excerpt from a 1974 speech by Representative Barbara Jordan of Texas, in which she said the impeachment of Nixon would divide people into two parties. Students would then answer a question like: “What does Jordan mean by the word ‘party’?” and would select from several possible choices. This sort of vocabulary question would replace the more esoteric version on the current SAT. . . . The Barbara Jordan vocabulary question would have a follow-up — “How do you know your answer is correct?” — to which students would respond by identifying lines in the passage that supported their answer.

All this sounds a lot like the emphasis in Common Core standards, which Coleman helped write.

The math section will focus on problem solving and data analysis, linear equations and the “passport to advanced math,” which will test “the student’s familiarity with complex equations and their applications in science and social science.”

The SAT revisions are a  big mistake, writes Peter Wood on Minding the Campus.

David Coleman, head of the College Board, is also the chief architect of the Common Core K-12 State Standards, which are now mired in controversy across the country.  Coleman’s initiative in revising the SAT should be seen first of all as a rescue mission.  As the Common Core flounders, he is throwing it an SAT life preserver.

The exam will be “dumbed down” to serve a “social justice” agenda, writes Susan Berry on Breitbart.

Rick Hess is “unwowed.” It’s supposed to be a more rigorous test, but the vocabulary expectations will be “dumbed down,” Hess writes. 

The College Board announced the new test would put an end to the “tricks” that had made test prep so effective, advantaging students whose families could afford it. . . .  I’d bet that within twelve months, the prep folks will have devised strategies to help coach “close reading” and otherwise adjusted to the new test.

Eliminating the mandatory essay is supposed to promote fairness and test validity, writes Hess. Not so long ago,  the essay was introduced to promote fairness and test validity.

Finally, he worries about “the Common Core’ification of the SAT.”  By revising the SAT to match Common Core standards, College Board risks politicizing the exam  and disadvantages students in non-Core states.

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  1. Mark Roulo says:

    “By revising the SAT to match Common Core standards, College Board … disadvantages students in non-Core states.”
    Assuming Wikipedia has things correct, the only states that are not following Common Core are: Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia (Arizona is following it, but with a different name). I’m not a big fan of the proposed SAT changes, but this argument is pretty weak.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Lots of states say they are adopting Common Core. But that doesn’t mean that they will actually do it. Lots of states are having trouble implementing it and/or their politicians are having second thoughts.

      Most states agreed to adopt Common Core because they thought it increased their chances of getting federal money. Very few of them are really attached to it.

  2. cranberry says:

    No one has seen the redesigned SAT, so it’s a sign of prejudice to declare it “dumbed-down.”

    First, removing the penalty for guessing is a minor change, and should make no difference in outcomes. The SSAT and the ISEE are standardized tests used for private school admissions. One penalizes for wrong answers, the other doesn’t. If not deducting points for wrong answers made one test much easier, you’d expect people to flock to that test. But they don’t. As students’ scores are compared to a norm on a norm-referenced test, the norm will include the score pattern produced by not deducting for wrong answers.

    Second, lessening the reliance on obscure vocabulary is a good thing. There are reputed to be lists of “SAT vocabulary” words floating around. Memorizing lists of obscure words is not a good use of anyone’s time.

    Such a change does remove a nice score increase for people with very high verbal intelligence. However, that doesn’t mean much, as people with high verbal intelligence will tend to do well on any test given in written form, which involves reading text, analyzing said text, and producing a written answer. That describes the SAT, doesn’t it?

    Third, the current SAT writing section is silly. The grammar multiple choice is a good idea, as it has given schools a reason to teach grammar. The essay, though, is too easily gamed. According to one source I read, students at certain prep services are taught to memorize a “high-scoring” essay, then work the prompt around to allow them to write down the memorized essay. Requiring students to write an essay analyzing a written work will remove that tactic.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      Cranberry Saith:
      “No one has seen the redesigned SAT, so it’s a sign of prejudice to declare it “dumbed-down.””

      To which the reply:

      That’s simply not true. The College Board has specifically announced that it is SHRINKING the vocabulary pool covered by the exam. It’s not like all those buzzwords weren’t already part of the exam, after all. It’s just that they were in there WITH the “obscure” words.

      And if I have a test that covers, say, 12,000 words — and I change it to a test that covers, say, 8500, there’s absolutely no reason not to say that I’ve “dumbed down” the test.

      I’ve eliminated one of the ways to make finer differentiations at the high end of the scoring spectrum. That’s “dumbing down.”

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      Though I should point out that doesn’t necessarily mean dumbing down is a BAD thing.

      It depends, as with everything, on what you’re trying to accomplish with your test.

      • cranberry says:

        The passage on the College Board’s site states, “The redesigned SAT will focus on relevant words, the meanings of which depend on how they’re used. Students will be asked to interpret the meaning of words based on the context of the passage in which they appear.”

        They haven’t given examples of passages, have they? It all depends on the diction of the passages involved. If they choose a “real” college textbook, the words will be challenging. It will not be a dumbed-down exercise, if done properly.

        I have not been able to find a list of words the SAT is dropping. Have you? I’d like to see it. Because it seems pundits are assuming any big word that comes into their heads will be dropped. I read the description to mean that the students’ verbal skills will be tested by understanding vocabulary in context.

        “He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.”

        I would not object to students being required to define the meaning of “exercise” or “convulsions” in this passage.

        • Michael E. Lopez says:

          I’m not at all sure what you’re talking about in the above comment.

          The College Board was pretty up-front about what they are doing: (

          “Relevant Words in Context

          The redesigned SAT will focus on relevant words, the meanings of which depend on how they’re used. Students will be asked to interpret the meaning of words based on the context of the passage in which they appear. This is demanding but rewarding work. These are words that students will use throughout their lives — in high school, college, and beyond.

          Requiring students to master relevant vocabulary will change the way they prepare for the exam. No longer will students use flashcards to memorize obscure words, only to forget them the minute they put their test pencils down. The redesigned SAT will engage students in close reading and honor the best work of the classroom.”

          • cranberry says:

            The College Board statement, and articles on the SAT’s redesign, state that some of the passages will be drawn from “Founding Documents and Great Global Conversation.”

            “Each exam will include a passage drawn from the Founding Documents of America or the Great Global Conversation they inspire — texts like the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers and “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

            I drew the passage above from the Declaration of Independence. Many of the words in that section may be “easier” than membranous (a word cited by some articles as not on the SAT.). I feel it is more important a student be able to read such a passage with comprehension, and defend his choice of meaning for, oh, “incapable of Annihilation,” than to do a fairly simple sentence-completing exercise using membranous.

            So it’s not a given that it’s dumbing things down. I really don’t think Fitzsimmons of Harvard would be pushing to dumb things down.

            There will be the amusing side effect of large numbers of Asia’s best and brightest studying the Federalist Papers in detail.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      “First, removing the penalty for guessing is a minor change, and should make no difference in outcomes.”
      Removing the penalty for guessing introduces noise into the results. It is no different than taking each student’s test and randomly adding or subtracting some points (10, 20, 30 … except that there will be fewer points in play at the high end). It should be clear that randomly adding or subtracting 10-30 points from a mid-range score makes a small (but pointless) difference. So does this change.

      • cranberry says:

        You are assuming the students who don’t guess have no idea of the answer. It is likely that their answers are not random, though.

        There are likely many students who self-edit their responses. If they aren’t certain of their answer, they don’t put it down, and thus don’t get credit for a correct answer. Other students who have been coached in the benefits and disadvantages of guessing, know to guess if they’re able to eliminate a certain number of options.

        Introducing a penalty for wrong answers induces certain students to underperform. Some students have difficulty being wrong, even if taking a chance on being wrong would improve their score.

    • The first article I read on the SAT changes included quotes from David Coleman in which he identified 6-8 words that would be eliminated. Of those, I commonly use more than half in casual conversations (non-academic) and use all but one of the rest occasionally. In my book, that’s Dumbing Down (even further, since removal of antonyms and analogies were big drops). I wish I could remember the cite – I’ve looked and can’t find it – but it was not in an obscure (!) source.

  3. cranberry says:

    Changes the College Board should enact? Well, they have to do something about test security, both in the US and in Asia.

    They should stop reusing tests. There are (I gather from reading on the internet) test prep services which send people in to memorize tests.

    Given the high fees students pay to take the SAT, and that it is a NONPROFIT, the least the College Board should do is to CREATE A NEW TEST FOR EACH ADMINISTRATION.

    If effected honestly, and rigorously, the new SAT will be brutal on students who have not mastered the academic skill of analyzing written work. It will be brutal on those who cannot determine which meaning of “party” fits the context of the passage.

    • Absolutely. Between the sheer number of test-takers available to test new questions and the power of computers, there’s no good excuse for not doing this.

  4. Deirdre Mundy says:

    So does the ‘new’ grammar section amount to adding the TSWE back in?