New SAT - Know the score
March 1, 2005 1:56 PM   Subscribe

This month the first batch of students will take the newly revised SAT. While the test has been modified before, an entirely new writing section will be added, and the top score will now be 2400. While parents panic, the $960 million test-prep industry is poised to teach the test that was once considered uncoachable. Not every school will be using the new writing section, but some big ones (pdf) were behind the push for its adoption. What’s a student to do?
posted by Coffeemate (78 comments total)
The SATs are a scam. Parents and students spend tons of money every year on a test that mostly just reflects a student's ability to take that particular test. Schools alter their curriculum. The new writing section is a superficial change at best. It is an industry, pure and simple.
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:25 PM on March 1, 2005

Wow, I hadn't heard of this revision, but it brings back memories of 7 years ago. I was never particularly concerned about this test, I was always very happy go lucky, but my mother, like many others, seemed to think that all future success would be determined solely by this test. What a racket! Between test-prep and test administration and scoring, the SAT is an economic juggernaut!
posted by crazy finger at 2:29 PM on March 1, 2005

The SATs suck. I just took the January SAT (last of the old ones) last month (due to weather) and now I'm taking the new SAT in 11 days. They certainly are a scam, but unfortunately it's a scam that's been working and a scam that most colleges want prospective students to have partaken in.
posted by thebabelfish at 2:36 PM on March 1, 2005

God help those with bad handwriting.

Me, for example
posted by IndigoJones at 2:41 PM on March 1, 2005

Yeah! Boo to these guys for providing a service for standardized comparison that universities can use. I mean, there are no tests in real life, right? College admissions should be based on...handshakes! And, uh...ethnicity!
posted by GooseOnTheLoose at 2:41 PM on March 1, 2005

Aw, man, talk about handwriting. We had to handcopy a prewritten "statement of trust" or some crap for the old SAT and sign it. The whole thing had to be done in cursive. I haven't written in cursive for years, and it looked horrible. I sure hope the writing section won't have to be in cursive... maybe I should practice.

GooseOnTheLoose: Show me a "test in real life" which involves filling in one of five ovals.
posted by thebabelfish at 2:48 PM on March 1, 2005

i got into a good uni never having taken the SAT, but it wasn't easy.

standardized tests suck
posted by reflection at 2:48 PM on March 1, 2005

GooseOnTheLoose, you did read the links, right? Success on the SAT I has the least bearing on how well a student does in college. Like the people above said, it only measures how well you take that test. For instance, I did great on the SAT because I take standardized tests very well, but I failed and dropped a class my freshman year because I'm lazy. I tend to think hard work will get you further than talent in the world (which doesn't bode well for me).
posted by rooftop secrets at 2:49 PM on March 1, 2005

Right. The SAT is a scam. All tests are scams.

Or perhaps it's an attempt to normalize ("standardize") and evaluate the academic performance of students coming from a wide range of schools. To suggest that testing students on core language and math curricula is a scam more or less requires believing that colleges shouldn't look at these criteria when determining admissions. One may as well do away with all that interest in grades as well. And you know we can't trust teachers to write letters of recommendation since they're just part of the whole military-industrial-education complex as well.

The test is far from perfect. There's certainly plenty of profiteering going on, and very limited evidence as to the benefits of test prep, but as far as I know, the college board that administers the test is a non-profit organization. It's $41.50, people -- quite affordable for such a large undertaking if you ask me. It could be a lot worse. The test has a valid purpose. Now how well the test in its current format can acheive its goals is another debate.

reflection: There are many such tests in real life, or at least tests which amount to true/false or multiple-choice questions. I might choose from a handful of medications for the treatment of a patient's hypertension. Or I might choose to put someone on a ventilator or not. Belive it or not, sometimes I even record these decisions on what's called on "Order Form" that has ovals on it. Often there really is an optimal answer, and my decisions are constantly evaluated.
posted by drpynchon at 2:58 PM on March 1, 2005

Show me a "test in real life" which involves filling in one of five ovals.


As for the SAT, I never took it, although I did take an SAT prep course (I was a national merit scholar finalist, so I got the class for free, presumably so they could say that national merit scholar finalists used their services). The prep course (rhymes with Winston Preview) was essentially a course to (a) alleviate your anxiety about the test, (b) give you a set of strategies for dealing with questions you couldn't answer (essentially how to guess with good odds) and (c) make you feel confident by showing your improvement over several sample tests.

Would I send my kids to it? I might, if it were free, because I was surrounded by kids who were being driven to succeed very, very hard by their parents. It might make me look like a groovy parent by comparison. Heh.

Incidentally, I did take the ACT, and got a 29; I had some 30s and 31s, but my math skillz didn't pay the theoretical billz. Chicago Public Schools and all that.
posted by davejay at 3:00 PM on March 1, 2005

Oh, and when I took that course, it was at a hoity-toity private school on the near north side of Chicago; as a Chicago Public School student, I had never seen a lunchroom with carpeting before, and as my graduating class was over 1200 kids, I remember being struck by a "for sale" ad posted on a locker that said "if you're interested, let me know -- I'm the kid in the metallica jacket." At my school, that would have only narrowed it down to the lower 600 students.
posted by davejay at 3:03 PM on March 1, 2005

It'll be even more interesting when they start using the e-raters they use to grade the GMATs on the regular SATs. There's no way it will be financially feasible to have human graders forever, considering the high volume of kids who take the SAT I.

I found this Washington Post article from last August incredibly disturbing: Computers Weighing In On the Elements of Essay
posted by aGreatNotion at 3:07 PM on March 1, 2005

Boy, if my kids turn out to be smart enough to hack computer-based essay grading, I'm taking them out for ice cream.

But I'll also make them write an essay on how they did it.
posted by davejay at 3:09 PM on March 1, 2005

Nice collection of links! I love the circularity of the fact that people who scored high on the SAT can always find jobs... teaching others how to score high on the SAT.
posted by vacapinta at 3:10 PM on March 1, 2005

The other thing about the writing addition to the SAT I, as Jay Matthews points out in the WP article linked in the first post, is that it's pretty much the same thing as the SAT II Writing test, which I easily got a perfect score on when I was a senior in high school. I mean, easily. So it's not like it's going to be very difficult.

Regarding the e-rater link I posted, I want to take the GMAT for the sole purpose of using the basic elements of essay structure to write the most ridiculous thing possible and see if I can squeeze it past the e-rater.

I'm sure it can be done, and without a great deal of difficulty.
posted by aGreatNotion at 3:14 PM on March 1, 2005

davejay: Or perhaps it's an attempt to normalize ("standardize") and evaluate the academic performance of students coming from a wide range of schools. To suggest that testing students on core language and math curricula is a scam more or less requires believing that colleges shouldn't look at these criteria when determining admissions. One may as well do away with all that interest in grades as well. And you know we can't trust teachers to write letters of recommendation since they're just part of the whole military-industrial-education complex as well.

Totally different things. Grades and teacher evaluations are excellent ways of assessing a student. An interview with the student is an excellent way of assessing a student. A standardized test that you can juice by being able to afford to take a course that bumps your grade up 70-80 points just by teaching you test taking tricks is not a useful way of assessing a student.

"Non-Profit" doesn't imply that it isn't supporting a whole lot of people. Furthermore, there is an entire industry of books, courses and tutoring that has sprung up around the SATs that makes millions of dollars and is entirely for profit. I still call scam.
posted by Joey Michaels at 3:14 PM on March 1, 2005

Actually, drpynchon said that. Just so's ya know.
posted by davejay at 3:25 PM on March 1, 2005

This is just wonderful — now students can learn how to write with no voice and emotion just like they've been taught to do with reading and math.

I recently took a Freshman Comp. class made up of juniors and seniors in high school, and I was more than a little disturbed at the cut-and-dry formula that has been taught to most kids in order to write a "good essay," whatever those mythical standards are.

So now kids will have to perform to some arbitrary standard of what composition is in the schools and test-prep classes. I saw this happen as a kid with the emergence of the TAAS state standardized tests; saying that same sort of thing is acceptable for potential college students scares me.

If colleges need a good indicator of a student's ability, check GPA/classes taken, their entrance essays and teacher recommendations.

posted by Hot Like Your 12V Wire at 3:28 PM on March 1, 2005

First, I am not and advocate for standardized testing. I believe that relying on only standardized tests as markers for achievement or aptitude is shortsighted, discriminatory, and wrong. However, this does not mean that the SAT (or ACT) should be automatically rejected as a measure for college entrance. The SAT does have some merit. It allows for another common data point when reviewing college applications. And most colleges do look at more than just SAT scores when sifting through the pool of applicants. Some look at GPA; others look at extracurricular activities.

The university at which I currently work does not analyze SAT scores when deciding on whom to admit, and this is causing problems. Like most universities, we're experiencing the ramifications of the fundamental breakdown in the American school system. Infated grades, social promition, and loss of teacher empowerment, combined with incredible socio-economic disparity and sociological dysfunction, is resulting in legions of students in our universities who are reading and writing at 5th - 8th grade levels. Plagiarism is rampant, personal responsibility is non-existant, and simple work-ethic has been replaced by our Generation Y students conditioned to our instant-gratificatiion society.

So universities are forced to implement remedial courses to get the underprepared students to the point where they're ready for actually college-level work. Many students are bewhildered and angry for being forced to take developemental courses. Some are angry at the university. Others realize the truth and get angry at their public education system. And some drop out.

Will "teaching to the test" and enforcing the SAT upon this generation of students fix this problem? No, but it'll be another measure we can use to identify the problems so that we may fix them. Saying "standardized tests suck" isn't enough. Why do they suck?

I personally abhor the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) passed in 2002. I believe it's nothing more than a baldfaced attempt by the neoconservatives currently in power to privatize education and turn our public school system into a profit-generating business. There exists language in NCLB which requires "failing" schools to report to the Department of Defense which students have failed the standardized tests being imposed by NCLB. I can think of no other reason for this but to provide to the DoD a list of potential recruits into our already stretched thin military system.

Regardless, standardized tests aren't inherently a bad thing. It's how they are used or mis-used that I think most people in the education world object to.
posted by at 3:35 PM on March 1, 2005

Success on the SAT I has the least bearing on how well a student does in college.

Damn straight. I got a 1590, and two and a half years later I dropped out of Stanford. Way to predict, SAT.

FWIW, I think that the whole system is shitty, and the addition of the writing portion probably won't do much but make those kids with overzealous parents have to take three SAT prep classes instead of just two. Oh, and give you hand cramps as well.

*points and laughs at those who have to take the SAT*
posted by salad spork at 3:38 PM on March 1, 2005

In March of last year, The Atlantic Monthly did a pretty funny tongue-in-cheek piece called "Would Shakespeare Get Into Swarthmore? How several well-known writers (and the Unabomber) would fare on the new SAT." (subscribers only) They used Princeton Review stock questions and found passages from famous authors that most closely relate to the questions.
To illustrate how the essays on the "new" SAT will be scored, The Princeton Review has composed some typical essay questions, provided answers from several well-known authors, and applied the College Board's grading criteria to their writing.
This was my favorite:
"Nothing great will ever be achieved without great men, and men are great only if they are determined to be so." —Charles de Gaulle

The Irish lady can say, that to-day is every day. Caesar can say that every day is to-day and they say that every day is as they say.

In this way we have a place to stay and he was not met because he was settled to stay. When I said settled I meant settled to stay. When I said settled to stay I meant settled to stay Saturday. In this way a mouth is a mouth. In this way if in as a mouth if in as a mouth where, if in as a mouth where and there. Believe they have water too. Believe they have that water too and blue when you see blue, is all blue precious too, is all that that is precious too is all that and they meant to absolve you. In this way Cezanne nearly did nearly in this way. Cezanne nearly did nearly did and nearly did. And was I surprised. Was I very surprised. Was I surprised. I was surprised and in that patient, are you patient when you find bees. Bees in a garden make a specialty of honey and so does honey. Honey and prayer. Honey and there. There where the grass can grow nearly four times yearly.

Reader's evaluation: Although Ms. Stein's essay is expressive, it's a bit flaky, lacking any semblance of structure, focus, or examples, and using non-standard syntax to boot. Grade: 1 out of 6
Of Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Shakespeare, and the Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber was the only one whose "essay" scored a 6 out of 6.

The piece is pretty funny.
posted by aGreatNotion at 3:48 PM on March 1, 2005 [1 favorite]

Oh, the prompt for the Stein essay was:

Assignment: In an essay, discuss your opinion of the quotation above. Support your view with one or more examples from literature, the arts, science, politics, current events, or your personal experience or observations.
posted by aGreatNotion at 3:49 PM on March 1, 2005

drpynchon and are right. I don't get the outrage at the SAT. The SAT is indeed a dismal measure of one's intelligence, but it is practically a natural consequence of our educational system. Watch how it works:
  1. The secondary educational system is fundamentally broken. Therefore:
  2. Most employers expect a college degree as an entry-level requirement. Therefore:
  3. The number of colleges proliferate. The number of college applicants proliferate. Therefore:
  4. Tight for funding in an extremely competitive game and dealing with an overwhelming number of applications, college admissions offices must find some method to streamline the process. Interviews with potential applicants are a grand idea and all, but there's just no money for that outside of a few elite private Universities. Therefore:
  5. College admissions offices basically need outsource the process of filtering out applicants (or at least greatly reduce the labor involved).
Et voila! The educational testing industry steps in to fill the gaping need. What's more, they basically do it at very little charge to the colleges, because they charge the students. So, they skim a little off the top. None of this should be the least bit surprising to you. The SAT is merely a symptom of a much bigger disease.

The computerization of the SAT is, not surprisingly, a further unavoidable consequence... I'm not even sure why people get so upset about it, except maybe that it challenges some of their core beliefs about humanity because it's so frighteningly accurate. None of essay-grading systems that I'm aware of rely completely on the judgement of the computer. Instead, the computer replaces one of multiple human judges. When the raters disagree, the case is arbitrated by a different human rater. But this is how it works when all of the raters are human. The reason it works is because the computer agrees with the human raters most of the time, thus reducing the labor cost of manual review significantly.
posted by casu marzu at 3:54 PM on March 1, 2005

All tests are scams.

Well, call me crazy but I'd prefer that my surgeon passed the medical boards. And that the guy driving the tanker truck full of toxic waste down the highway passed his HAZMAT liscence test.
posted by jonmc at 4:03 PM on March 1, 2005

I have no problem with standardized tests. But how can you standardize an essay?

This kind of thing only produces bullshit artists:

Assignment: What is your view on the idea that it takes failure to achieve success? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue.

How can you reflect upon, enumerate, and defend your views on such a thing in 60 minutes? You can't and you're not supposed to. You are supposed to present and defend any view, not the one you believe. This is how salesmen and middle-managers are born.
posted by Bort at 4:13 PM on March 1, 2005

Well, call me crazy but I'd prefer that my surgeon passed the medical boards.

No one's saying (at least, I'm not saying) that the surgeon shouldn't pass his medical exam. Those are proficiency tests in specific areas that are required to do your eventual job correctly. We're discussing the SAT, which has little bearing on how well you will do in college. Don't make a straw man out of that argument.

This is not saying ALL TESTS ARE BAD. For instance, it has been shown that the SAT II actually does tend to correspond with college success (which is probably the motivation for adding the writing section). So I am not against some form of standardized testing, just the SAT I in its current form.
posted by rooftop secrets at 4:14 PM on March 1, 2005

Actually, drpynchon said exactly that.

Just saying.
posted by jonmc at 4:21 PM on March 1, 2005

This is how salesmen and middle-managers are born.

My dad was both, in his time. As was I. And Dad never took the SAT.
posted by jonmc at 4:23 PM on March 1, 2005

Having spent 4 years actually teaching writing to high schoolers, you'd think I'd be the first person to object to the idea of a writing component for the SAT. I know from first-hand experience, that not all writers can perform as expected on the writing portion of the SAT, or the writing portion for any standardized test. Yes, people write and communiate differently. Yes, that makes it more difficult to score a writing portion of a test. Yes, there will be cases where a completed SAT essay does not fit the mold expected by the computerized scoring system, or even the mold expected by the human graders. But, as stated in an earlier post, it's not *only* computers grading these essays, and it's not only a single human. Results *will* vary and there will be cases where a submitted essay recieves a mark lower than it deserves. And you can bet the opposite is also true. This is the nature of written communication.

However, this still not not invalidate the idea of a writing component for the SAT. This is because the writing portion also shows whether the writer can formulate complete sentences, apply basic grammatical rules, and communicate an idea clearly and concisely. I would argue that the writing portion of the SAT is actually making the new SAT *less* of a standardized test than its predecessor. Yes it's still a standardized test, but at least now there is some human grading element involved, which is a good thing.
posted by at 4:24 PM on March 1, 2005

Actually, drpynchon said exactly that.

Actually, I think he was being sarcastic.

Just saying.
posted by rooftop secrets at 4:28 PM on March 1, 2005

This is how salesmen and middle-managers are born.

I remember being even more astounded when I started working and realized that the same HS style stuck for many people long after they left Academia.

I also remember being astounded at how poorly many of my peers in college wrote, and it was largely due to the Topic Sentence/3 Supporting Sentence Form shoved down kids' throats for most of their high school careers, and now being incorporated into the SAT I.

"Now class, today we are going to discover the 5 paragraph essay!"

While I feel that knowing the structure is important, there's a danger in stifling creativity when you incorporated it into one of the most widely used college admissions exams in the country. I remember writing my SAT II essay, and remember being cautious to stick to the 5 paragraph bore-me-to-pieces form so as not to stray too far out of the cattle chute and hurt my score. Last fall, I worked with kids writing college essays for the UC system and was amazed to see how well many of them were *able* to write, but how terrified many of them were of straying from "the norm."

On the other hand, I do sort of agree with There is something beneficial in measuring how well students can express themselves in writing, and I suppose that a banal College Board prompt is superior to "Dog:Cat as Bird:_______"
posted by aGreatNotion at 4:29 PM on March 1, 2005

Er, as evidenced at my last post, the one thing I've never been really good at is editing myself.... maybe they could add that to the test in a few years.
posted by aGreatNotion at 4:32 PM on March 1, 2005

Standardized testing isn't a scam, it a tragedy. For more on the impact of standardized testing look into Bush's No Child Left Behind Act.
posted by f5seth at 4:32 PM on March 1, 2005

I also remember being astounded at how poorly many of my peers in college wrote, and it was largely due to the Topic Sentence/3 Supporting Sentence Form shoved down kids' throats for most of their high school careers, and now being incorporated into the SAT I.

The five paragraph persuasive pepper! I still cringe every time I see it. Since I now work on a university campus, that's basically every time I turn to the editorial page of the campus newspaper.
posted by casu marzu at 4:35 PM on March 1, 2005


It was my essays and my SATs that got me into college (I maintained a fine 2.8 GPA all through high school), so you won't hear me trashing the SAT or getting worked up over an essay portion being appended to it. It's a data point for college admissions folks, and generally speaking it's hard to see how more data is a bad thing.

I also wonder if teenage bloggers might quite unintentionally have an advantage on the new SAT, or, alternately, if keeping a blog (i.e., constantly writing in an essay-like format) might now become part of one's schoolwork.
posted by jscalzi at 4:38 PM on March 1, 2005

Oh Jesus Christ. Your opening line is perfect, but what in the hell does Bush have to do with the SAT? It's been around a lot longer than he has.
posted by casu marzu at 4:39 PM on March 1, 2005

Grades and teacher evaluations are excellent ways of assessing a student.


Grades can have absolutely ridiculous variation for similarly skilled people, particularly between schools. Adding the fact that in high school a student has little to no choice of teachers for given subjects, I'd say you have to be extremely careful when using grades for assessment.

Standardized tests are certainly the only viable way of providing a common metric to evaluate students' knowledge. Now, what they should test is an entirely different question. I think the wider audience the test has to cater to, the less adequate it can get - i.e. I've taken very adequate science subject tests (AP, subject GRE) which tested my knowledge thoroughly, and generic tests (SAT, GRE), and the latter are much less adequate at evaluating my knowledge (and easier for me to score high on). Anyway, for colleges, it's either standardized tests or entrance exams, and I know damn well which is more stressful for the students (the latter, of course).
posted by azazello at 4:40 PM on March 1, 2005

jscalzi: It was my essays and my SATs that got me into college (I maintained a fine 2.8 GPA all through high school), so you won't hear me trashing the SAT or getting worked up over an essay portion being appended to it.

SAT essays are a far cry from College Admissions essays, though. The idea of a College Admissions essays is to make yourself stand out. The idea of a College Board/SAT essay is to prove you know the cursed 5 paragraph form.

Hell, I got into college(s) with a completely sarcastic essay called "Why I Want to be Miss America." If I had written something like it for the SAT II Writing test I'd have come out with a pretty weak score because I bucked the basic 5 essay format on that one.
posted by aGreatNotion at 4:43 PM on March 1, 2005

Grades and teacher evaluations are excellent ways of assessing a student.

Getting grades and cultivating good relationships are a skill, a skill that's cultivated by the most ambitious, not neccessarily the most intelligent.
posted by jonmc at 4:50 PM on March 1, 2005

All the intelligence in the world doesn't do a thing without ambition.
posted by rooftop secrets at 4:52 PM on March 1, 2005

Results 1 - 10 of about 129,000 for "5 paragraph" (65,700 for "five paragraph").

There's a highly amusing FPP in there just dying to get out! Paging y2karl and matteo!
posted by casu marzu at 4:54 PM on March 1, 2005

All this anger at the 5-paragaph format! Wow.

What exactly is so wrong with the 5-paragraph format? It's a perfectly viable structure for an essay. Of course it's not the *only* legitimate structure. Good writing teachers teach their students this. They also teach them that written communication has rules and that before you can break the rules, you have to know the rules. My experience has shown me that a significant portion of college freshmen simply don't know the basic rules or written communication. They don't know a 5-paragraph essay from a an Ann Coulter column. They don't know even know how to formulate or recognize a complete sentence.

Requiring students to be able to emulate a perfectly viable essay format isn't necessarily a bad thing. If they can expres their idea clearly and concisely while following basic grammatical rules, then I say "Success!" If they choose to buck the 5-paragraph format because they already know it and want to express some creativity, then I say, "All the more power to them" and would not score the essay poorly. But the sad truth is that an alarmingly high percentage of students graduating from American high schools *do not* have the communciation/writing skills necessary to create even the 5-paragraph essay format you're so readily dismissing. Bucking the rules (the 5-paragraph format, for instance) and hiding incomprehension, incorrect grammar, and poor communication skills behind a veil of "creativity" isn't going to work.
posted by at 4:56 PM on March 1, 2005

Me: Grades and teacher evaluations are excellent ways of assessing a student.

Azezelo: Really?

Yes, really. Most schools, at least in my experience, can tell you what a grade in their particular school means. Indeed, at least out in my neck of the woods, schools are very concerned about stomping out grade inflation because most colleges can figure out if a school's grades are habitually inflated.

An "A' at one school doesn't necessarily mean the same thing as an "A" at another. But if you check out a school's statistics, you can get a pretty reasonable feel for what an "A" means at that specific school.

I believe you can buy your way to a better SAT score through prep courses. Of course, you can also buy your way into a school with higher standards, into a college with a beter reputation, etc. It is all part of the system that doesn't really reward intellignece so much as it rewards money. I guess I should be saying "the American education system is a scam."
posted by Joey Michaels at 4:59 PM on March 1, 2005 I understand what you are saying 100% and I do not completely disagree with you.

The problem with this particular application of the 5 paragraph format is that, from my experience and from the articles I've read regarding its implementation, and from what Kaplan taught me about how to take the SAT II 7 years ago, anything that is NOT the 5 paragraph format will NOT be acceptable.

So basically, advanced writers will have to dumb down their essays to fit the mold. It's not an egregious abuse of the education system... it just sucks.
posted by aGreatNotion at 5:02 PM on March 1, 2005

They also teach them that written communication has rules and that before you can break the rules, you have to know the rules.

This is true. Even Picasso painted rather conventionally before experimentation. Or I'll listen to dischordant music because I know they are capable of making melody and it's a conscious artistic choice. The 5-paragraph essay is not evil, but it can become a trap if students aren't taught to leave it at some point.

on preview: sometimes you have to dumb yourself down in order to succeed in life. see: job interviews.
posted by rooftop secrets at 5:03 PM on March 1, 2005

All the intelligence in the world doesn't do a thing without ambition.

Perhaps, but a surfeit of ambition can make up for lackluster intelligence when it comes to college admissions, especially if the emphasis is on grades and teacher reccomendations. And maybe it's just me, but truly ambitious people freak me out, I don't trust 'em. You just have to wonder what would happen to you if you stood between them and their goals.
posted by jonmc at 5:10 PM on March 1, 2005

In high school, I got plenty of college, I get mostly As and this term a B in quantum mechanics. Thanks to the SAT, I got into college in the first place.

The SAT alone is by no means a great way of getting a complete picture of who a student is and what they are capable of, but it is IMO more indicative of raw intelligence than say, good grades in HS, which are more associated with ambition and organization, and possibly having no life outside of school.

I believe a writing/listening portion is in the process of being added to the MCAT as well... It's a trend.
posted by StrangerInAStrainedLand at 5:11 PM on March 1, 2005 You're right of course. However, the vast majority of five-paragraph essays that I see are clearly the product of intellectual laziness. When I was in school it was essentially taught by rote. And it often looks as if that's how everyone else learned it. I find it infuriating when supposedly educated people trot it out in its crudest form and hang their arguments on it with absolutely no thought whatsoever.

Of course, I also find it extremely funny. But, then, I'm a bad person.
posted by casu marzu at 5:12 PM on March 1, 2005

Why the SAT? Why do I never hear outrage about the GRE? Isn't the GRE another standardized test having nothing to do with how well you did in college that will inevitably determine your grad school fate? Where are the protestors for the LSAT and the MCAT?

Seriously. People get their panties in a twist about having to take a standarized test to get into college and ask "When will this be useful in life?" Four years later is the answer if you want to go to grad school. Why does no one bemoan the great unfairness of the GRE the way that people do the SAT? Are college students simply more jaded than their high school peers?

Also : many many many jobs require you to take a standardized test in the field. My EMT-B exam was the hardest, most stressful test I've ever taken. All you whippersnappers should consider the SAT good practice because you're going to have to use those filling in the bubbles skillz a lot more often than you'd think.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 5:32 PM on March 1, 2005

There's been at least one study correlating how well you do on the SAT and how positive the rest of your life is. One doesn't cause the other, but the same mechanism that causes a high SAT score can arguably be a high factour in a long and happy life.

The correlation is significant, but a significant psychology correlation is 50%. So, yea, while half the kids who get high SAT scores are headed for success, it isn't predictive of every person destined for an okay life.
posted by hopeless romantique at 6:11 PM on March 1, 2005

So the higher the SAT score, the more likely you are to get hot hot monkey sex, right?
posted by Kleptophoria! at 6:13 PM on March 1, 2005

Grapefruit: I'll bitch about the GREs, because it is a scam through and through. Not necessarily the testing part, but the fact that it is a required test (for grad school entrance) that you have to pay to take. And we're talking $115 for the general, $130 for a subject test. That, plus the "prep" industry, is where the rip comes in.

I think it doesn't get as much flack because not as many people take it; you don't have to take it if you aren't going to grad school.

I'm glad I managed to escape the No Child Left Behind Act, because I was taking an average of 5 standardized tests a year in high school already. I shudder to think how bad it is now.
posted by somethingotherthan at 6:20 PM on March 1, 2005

Yeah, the NCLB makes things worse especially in the testing grounds of Pennsylvania (lucky me!). We just had the PSSAs (again), a product of NCLB, and they are ridiculous.
posted by thebabelfish at 6:36 PM on March 1, 2005

I spent four years involved in the admission process for a competitive college. I tell you quite frankly that it is impossible fairly to compare candidates without reference to standardized tests. There are far too many variables in transcripts for them to useful on a standalone basis.

I would very happily dump the SAT Verbal though in favor of a repurposed AP History or some other objective measure of knowledge. SAT Verbal is basically a perfect mirror of the home environment and resources: your baseline is determined by how chatty and booksmart your parents were and how often they forced you to read instead of watch TV; your final score is that baseline plus the significant edge you can get from coaching.

The SAT Math section, by contrast, is pretty objective. I actually like that it covers such a low level of the curriculum -- nothing exposes the lie of a transcript's A's and A-'s in math straight through trigonometry better than a 510 SAT-Math.
posted by MattD at 6:38 PM on March 1, 2005

This discussion is amazingly US-centric. It would do people well to look around the world at what happens.

In many places around the world there are standardised tests. But they are not just sort of IQ tests like the SAT 1s. They work reasonably. Weighing school based assessment, standardised ability and subject tests and others can be done.

The other thing is that the US disease in education is an obsession about which school you get into as an undergrad. It doesn't make that much difference in the end. Only the person being educated can learn. Relax, go to a good cheap state college and don't fret about Harvard.

Interestingly, similar madness afflicts others. Australia has an obsession with private high schools that is damaging, as does the UK.
posted by sien at 6:45 PM on March 1, 2005

This discussion is amazingly US-centric.

Maybe that's because it's about the SAT, which is, you know, given in the US to enter US universities.
posted by Bort at 7:53 PM on March 1, 2005

Show me a "test in real life" which involves filling in one of five ovals.

Driving test?
Tax form?
Bar exam?

And isn't the point the critical thinking and writing skills? The SAT doesn't claim to predict performance, but it does somewhat correlate with one's academic ability. It also provides something more standard than the GPA, which varies by school. A national college can't keep track of every high school's standards, but it can keep track of the SAT bell curve.

Disclosure: I am trying hard to defend my 1570.

posted by NickDouglas at 8:20 PM on March 1, 2005

This discussion is making me glad that I went through public schooling in British Columbia.

We do have a set provincial exam here, but there is one for each subject. I suppose they are subject to some of the same pitfalls. However, I think ultimately the provincial exam was not looked at so much as the cumulative final grade, which included the provincial exam (as a certain percentage of the final grade). There was also a language test, which allowed you to be exempt from certain first year English classes in British Columbia. I remember I got 5/6 on it, losing marks for my poor organization.

As for grad school? No GRE test here (at least at any of the graduate programs I looked at). I think the idea of a test to get into grad school is fairly pointless, since a) students who have the grades to get into grad school should be pretty canny anyway and b) most grad schools require applications that include writing samples, which is often a better indicator of whether a student is graduate school material or not.

That said, I know of at least one person who got A's all through university but now is floundering in graduate level history because he is struggling with some of the more theoretical concepts, which were not presented in any of the undergraduate classes but were expected to be understood in graduate school (at the same university).

I think the primary difference between a good undergraduate student and a good graduate student is that the good graduate student understands that it is his or her responsibility to cover anything that he or she may not understand going into the classroom while the good undergraduate expects that he or she will not be tested on anything that wasn't covered in class. How can a test cover that?

So, to bring this long reply to a close, I think that tests (and I have little or no experience with the SAT, having never had to think about taking it) is that they can provide a method to compare students, but I think they should maybe be used as a tiebreaker rather than the primary criteria for acceptance.
posted by synecdoche at 8:46 PM on March 1, 2005

jonmc: Sarcasm meter down?

An "A' at one school doesn't necessarily mean the same thing as an "A" at another. But if you check out a school's statistics, you can get a pretty reasonable feel for what an "A" means at that specific school.

Which is exactly why grades DON'T work beyond evaluating students from the same school. Look, I went to a preppy prep school where everybody worked their ass off and competed like rabid monkeys to get good grades. Many of us didn't. While a college can take that into account, at the top tier for example, the reverse situation becomes impossible to judge. I know this as someone who worked in admissions. A's from an inner-city school where half the people don't bother to show up are virtually meaningless as a benchmark for academic prowess. Is it suggestive perhaps of a number of extracurricular characteristics that might be favored? Sure. But when that kid gets a 970 on the SAT, there is reason for concern.

The pointless argument that people who ace the SAT can fail out of college by not showing up doesn't address the fact that sending a kid who can't break a 1,000 to MIT is the disaster admissions officers are looking to avoid. The test doesn't measure ambition or drive, and isn't intended to. There are other avenues to address that.
posted by drpynchon at 9:00 PM on March 1, 2005

As someone actually involved in the Test Prep Industry, I'd like to weigh in with some of my opinions:

Yes, the SAT is a scam. All of the standarized tests are a scam to some degree or another. They all basically test a student's ability to take that particular test (MCAT and other medical tests and some of the GRE Subject tests to a lesser degree, as they actually test a fair amount of content, rather than just merely strategies). The SAT and LSAT I feel are a bit more pointless, as law schools and undergrad institutions tend to weigh these tests a lot higher in terms of determining admissions. The GRE, on the other hand, is more of a gatekeeper test. Once you make a certain score on it, you're in the list of potential candidates.

That said, they do serve, from the school's perspective, a certain purpose. They help determine who has the ability and drive to prepare for the test. If I score 1520 on the GRE, that doesn't necessarily mean I'm smarter than someone who scored a 1200, it means that I'm more willing to put in the effort to prepare for the test. I've known people who have been told by MBA admissions officers that they don't really care that an applicant gets a good score on the GMAT except for the fact it shows that they are serious about going to business school. The score isn't so much predictive of success in school as is the preparedness it takes to get that score.
posted by papakwanz at 9:31 PM on March 1, 2005

I coached the SAT verbal section when I was in grad school. I agree that it's partly a scam, but it's not without some utility. The analogy section (which has been taken out of the new SAT) was the students' least favorite. My tactic was a special index card system for vocabulary--I hit vocabulary hard--and a system of elimination for the purpose of better guessing. It's not a really good barometer of intelligence, but it measures more than you might think, such as a kid's ability to plan ahead and pick up new words. That's worth something, even if it is culturally biased.

Critical reading sections are going to be both long and short in the new SAT, which will be a refreshing change from long and longer. That was my least favorite to coach.

Believe it or not, you can standardize the essay. It's kind of sad, really, because the essay form has lost some of its significance and utility because of this fact. It's a great form that has been saddled with this menial labor assignment that is beneath it. Nevertheless, the 5-paragraph essay is what I coached, and I was really good at it.

Incidentally, I still coach the SAT from time to time, but now it's in an international school context (in Vietnam) so it has a new EFL aspect. That's sort of like going from being a juggling coach to being a juggling coach for the spastic.

Those who would attack the SAT for its (many) shortcomings might do better to step back and consider the mass-production corporate education system that makes it, or something like it, necessary.
posted by squirrel at 9:45 PM on March 1, 2005

Also - to aGreatnotion re: the article about the SAT essay exam.

Yes, that article was somewhat funny, but also a little pointless. Saying that Shakespeare wouldn't pass the SAT essay test doesn't really mean anything given the fact that the SAT doesn't test one's ability to write Renaissance drama in blank verse. The only one of the people who were evaluated in that who actually wrote anything somewhat like what the SAT is asking students to write was the Unabomber, thus he's the only one who scored well.
posted by papakwanz at 9:45 PM on March 1, 2005

What you all are missing is that the new essay system is patriotic. The reason it had to be put in is because of peopel taking the test abroad. They added the essay portion to the GRE several years ago when they noticed a pattern in the scores in asia every month. At the first of the month when a set of tests were introduced, the scores would steadily rise until the end of the month when a new test was introduced. The essay was introduced to counteract the cheating and more accurately reflect everyone's abilities. No whether it really does the second aspect or not is up to debate.

As for the ETS people, they can bite me. I spent several hundred dollars applying to grad schools because I had to pay 6 dollars for the phone call, 15 per school, and 10 to mail them. And several didn't reach their destinations so I had to resend them. Nevermind this could all be done online at this point. Bastards.

ah well, got into my top 3, so I'm happy
posted by slapshot57 at 10:11 PM on March 1, 2005

Probably the worst aspect of the SAT is that rich, preppy high schoolers who can afford to take Kaplan courses have an advantage over their less wealthy peers on the SAT (though it's worth noting that Kaplan doesn't advertise how much their class actually raises scores, although I bet they know.) But, the test still provides a great benefit to poor students. In keeping with a fine tradition of citing drpynchon in this thread, A's from inner city schools don't mean anything. And even for good schools, it can be hard to tell the valedictorians apart- Stanford supposedly receives enough applications from valedictorians alone to fill its freshman class four times over. Without the SAT as a way to compare any and all students, it would once again become essentially impossible for students from bad schools to get into good colleges. Why would a university take a risk on the 4.0 student from rural Alabama when they can take a student from a prep school instead? It would never happen, and social mobility in this country would take one more step towards oblivion. This function could hypothetically be replaced by other tests more representative of knowledge, such as the AP tests, but this wouldn't be a fair exchange for poor students. Many schools can't even offer more than a couple of AP classes. And the preparation advantage of wealthy students is much greater for a knowledge based exam. For giving everybody a reasonably fair shot at getting into a school that matches their ability level, a raw ability test seems necessary. Clearly the SAT is not perfect at that, but it seems to do a pretty good job (writing section aside). And hey, SAT's combined with high school grades are actually a pretty good predictor of college performance, so statistically they serve the university's goal pretty well. That, and for the elite schools, there are many, many fewer people with 1600's than there are valedictorians, so it can really help the top admissions offices.

Disclosure: I'm defending the 1600 I got on my only try (relevant in a sec), since it got let me transfer from a mediocre school to a good one. In case it matters, I was lucky enough to go to a prep school, but chose not to take SAT prep classes.

One thing that has always made me curious about the SAT's is that statistically, perfect scores aren't anything like repeatable. On the score sheet I got back, it said that the average kid who had gotten an 800 verbal lost 49 points if they took the test again, and the average 800 math score dropped 42. Not gonna lie: I guessed on a couple of questions, so my score could have swung down a little if my luck had gone the other way. So, it seems that if a student took the SAT's multiple times, it would be useful to look at all of their scores (especially for a top-tier school, where these fluctuations might matter). Yet we were always told that universities would only look at our highest scores. I don't know what the variance is like for lower scores, but if its remotely comparable it seems like multiple scores would be quite useful for admissions offices. Maybe one of you folks who worked in that field could address why schools don't look at all scores?

PS- this is me coming out of my lurker shell, so before reading too much about me into this post and leave me as flamebait forever, have a look at these soothing little guys.
posted by spooman at 10:22 PM on March 1, 2005

nothing exposes the lie of a transcript's A's and A-'s in math straight through trigonometry better than a 510 SAT-Math

That isn't necessarily true. I tested down on any standardized math test (though not terribly) not because I didn't understand the math, but because I am that stupid person who always drops a negative or makes some other tiny mistake. On an exam with the work shown, that loses you like half a point. On a standardized test, that makes you as wrong as someone who had no clue.
posted by dame at 10:36 PM on March 1, 2005

I actually teach SAT prep, so for what it's worth, I'll weigh in on a few common arguments.

1. Students take the test far too seriously.

Yes. Yes they do. They - and their parents - are convinced that this test will make or break the rest of their academic careers, and therefore the rest of their lives. In California (where I teach) this fear is more valid than it is in the rest of the country, but even here the anxiety level is ridiculous.

The UC system is the largest and most influential voting block on the SAT. The recent changes came about largely due to a threat on the part of the UCs to stop using the test, as they felt it was no longer an accurate measure of student performance or potential. If a student wishes to go to school in California, they should understand that the SATs are certainly weighed more heavily here than they are in small, East Coast schools. But this hypothetical student should also be aware that the UC system is so overloaded that many truly excellent UCLA candidates (for example) are being required to spend two years at community college before they will be admitted to UCLA (the linked page does not reflect this, but many of my students have received letters telling them they will be admitted only after completing these two years).

2. The SATs do not accurately measure student performance/potential.

No, they certainly don't. But they do measure basic knowledge of English grammar and vocabulary, as well as the ability to understand pieces of writing. The math section measures the ability to perform mathematical operations through Algebra 2 and Geometry. Having said this, the entire test is just as much a measure of a student's ability to logically eliminate wrong answer choices as their ability to find the right one. As for students who make careless or silly mistakes (like dropping negative signs): don't.

3. No one can write a good essay in 25 minutes.

As a writer, I'd be the last person to argue this. But the students are not being asked to write good essays. They are being asked to write essays that clearly express a position and use examples effectively to support that opinion. I grade hundreds of these essays each week, and please believe me when I tell you that this is a skill sorely lacking in high school students. I teach kids from poor, overcrowded public schools as well as fancy-schmancy private schools, and the difference in the quality of their writing is slight. If the addition of the writing section leads to an increased focus on writing skills in English classes, then three cheers for the writing section.

4. The test is biased against ________.

Yes, it is, in the same manner that the rest of our society and educational system are biased. An essay written by a student who does not speak English as his/her first language and has not learned it at the native-speaker level will not receive as high a score as one written by a native speaker. Part of the expressed requirement for a higher score is the "skillful use of language." This will also be a requirement in college.

5. The test doesn't measure anything useful or even specific.

Nope. That's what the SATII: Subject Tests are for.

N.B. In fact, the new writing section of the SATI is really just the old SATII: Writing test, altered only slightly.
posted by Uccellina at 10:54 PM on March 1, 2005

I got 800 Verbal and 800 SAT II Writing by not being a dirty illiterate. (My essay was crap, as any of those essays is probably doomed to be, but I guess I showed a working knowledge of basic grammar and vocabulary. I don't remember if I put it in five paragraph form.) If these kids would read a book or two at some time in their lives they wouldn't need to worry about all this coaching.

Now the exam may or may not suck, but I fail to see how people claim it doesn't correlate at all with smartness, if you take ability to properly use language and math as somewhat indicative (though not the only signs) of intelligence. There will be mistakes like a really smart kid who is bad at tests testing low or a kid of average intelligence but perverted drive flogging himself to a good score while failing at life, but in general it's going to give some correlation with intelligence in math and the English language.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 11:02 PM on March 1, 2005

I taught a class to prep students for taking the new SAT math section. When I starting going through the material I found that it is startlingly easy to prep for the math section. The problems can be broken down into only a dozen or so discrete classes of problems and every class of problem is presented in a few different difficulty levels, and then a few problems have traps layered on top of them. If you want a 600 or better, all you have to do is do only difficuly 1-3 problems and get them right. The more problems you do, the more clear the difficulty of the problem is and classes of traps. It was easy enough to raise everyone's score by 50 points in the span of a quarter. Surprisingly enough, my students kick butt on the grid-in questions compared with the regular problems.
posted by plinth at 6:21 AM on March 2, 2005

The problem with the five paragraph essay isn't the five paragraphs per se, but the fixation on the form over the content.

See, explainations of the five paragraph essay such as the one in this painful slideshow is like telling someone to build a car with a box on four round things, and forgetting to tell them that the round things have to be on axles that spin. An essay doesn't need a topic sentance, and three things about it - it needs a THESIS and supporting evidence (2 points, 4 points, who cares? enough to support the thesis is all).

Even after 4 years of being told about five paragraph essays, I didn't understand how really to write an essay. I kept getting back papers saying "No thesis" - and didn't understand why. I had my topic sentance, and three sub-topics and lots of interesting things about them. Then finally, in my last year of highschool, a teacher gave a class on essay writing in which she said - forget about the number of paragraphs - what's important is that you have an argument, and all of your subpoints go back directly to that argument. And they are sub-points, not sub-topics, not sub-wafflings, not sub-descriptive stuff. Those subpoints are in turn supported by evidence (facts, quotes, whatever you're working with). Oh, and you don't have to have a concluding sentance to every paragraph if it doesn't sound good - style still means something.

I still use her system in graduate school - I have a thesis for a paper, I have points to support that, and I bring in my evidence. Why not teach this?

NB: the above really only applies to the argumentative or thesis based paper, which, of course, is the type most often required in writing classes and humanities disciplines (Literature, history, etc.) Other disciplines have their own requirements.
posted by jb at 8:21 PM on March 2, 2005

I had two high school enligh teachers that treid to teach about the 5 paragraph essay style. But they discretely told certain students not to listen because they already knew how to write an argumentative essay and if they tried to fit their writing into the rigid form, then it would destroy their natural ability.
posted by raedyn at 8:51 AM on March 8, 2005

jb's link epitomizes everything that is wrong about the way the five-paragraph essay is taught. If I didn't know better, I would think it was satire.

Wow, that brings back memories of middle school.
posted by casu marzu at 8:53 AM on March 8, 2005

As someone who routinely reviews applications to graduate school, there is a lot in this set of comments that rings true. Are standardized tests predictive of success? Yes and no. Yes because the scores are representative of a set of abilities that are not orthogonal to intelligence. No because the scores do not necessarily reflect an individual's ability to work hard, persevere and integrate various perspectives. I have seen students with 99th percentile GREs struggle in graduate school because they lack these abilities. I have seen students with less impressive numbers (60th percentile) excel. As someone in this thread said, the ability to work hard is far more likely to bring success than the ability to score well on standardized tests.
posted by bluesky43 at 9:14 AM on March 8, 2005

This is a pretty good thing. You'd be surprised at how many people are just not able to write in an intelligible way.
posted by clevershark at 9:28 AM on March 8, 2005

The SAT is not perfect, (full disclosure I work for a test prep company and make a nice wage teaching students how to overcome the SAT) but it is not that bad. As a TA in a philosophy department I get to read a lot of essays written by freshmen and sophomores. Some of them are so bad that it honestly appears to be the case that they are just incapable of expressing a coherent thought (let alone two thoughts that cohere with each other in any way at all).

If every student I see next year can write well enough to get a six on the new SAT, I shall be thrilled with the progress. Heck if the essay portion just convinces them to stop using words that they don't understand I would sing the praises of ETS to the heavens.
posted by oddman at 9:33 AM on March 8, 2005

The only thing SAT scores statistically correlate with is the income level of your family, period.

I have worked as an sat tutor and also for ets, grading essays for the CAHSEE which, in some ways, is what the SAT is being made to look more like, a state aptitude test. The grading system is remarkably fair in a relative sense. On the other hand, the people scoring them, at least the ones working for ets, are paid badly, treated poorly [scoring upwards of 25-30 essays and hour for about $10/hour] and often lack the training that ets claims they do in broad sweeping statements like "Your essays are scored by English teachers" when actually it's more likely that your essays are scored by work-at-home dorks like myself. Not that I don't know English pretty well, but the difference is obvious.

I've been working with a test-prep company lately grading essays to help them prepare training materials for the new SAT, so I've read about 300 of these essays in the last six days. Now that students are typing them, it's easier to score because you can really focus on argument and style and not get totally sidetracked by things like handwriting which was always a hard part for me. The big downside to the essay question is that it's geared more towards the dull old expository essay "It's more important to know a little about several things than know a lot about one thing, yes or no? Support your assertion with examples from history, literature or your own personal experience" As a result, new speakers of English who are good with vocab and math do worse on this, as do low-level reading kids who often misread the question and, as a result write weird all over the place essays. It's very very easy to tell who took test prep classes and yes, they do better on these essays just because they know how to write five paragraphs and already their essays looks more polished and well thought out than kids who really don't even get the five paragraph essay thing to begin with, or who weren't taught it.

The most heartbreaking thing for me about scoring the essays on the CAHSEE was reading essays that were either completely unintelligible or ones that were basically blank with little pleas to the test scorer saying things like "pls pass me!!!" I know test writing/scoring companies are trying very very hard to save money on test scoring and get software that can "grade" these essays which chills me to the bone.
posted by jessamyn at 10:41 AM on March 8, 2005

jessamyn: I know test writing/scoring companies are trying very very hard to save money on test scoring and get software that can "grade" these essays which chills me to the bone.

I guess my question is, why does this chill you to the bone? I understand why that is an emotional response (in fact, it is mine also), but the cold hard facts are the automatic scoring works very well. I'm not sure how this is any worse than any of the many other cold hard facts about standardized testing. It's an ugly business, but there doesn't seem to be anything better on the horizon to replace it.

One other thing: I often hear people saying that the SAT doesn't completely accurately predict college success. Well, of course. There is NO measure that can predict college success completely; that's a pitfall with any type of prediction, from weather, to insurance underwriting, to sporting matches, you name it. And although I'm not certain, I wouldn't be surprised to find that there are other variables that correlate with success that shouldn't be used -- like family income (I'm just guessing here, I don't know if there's a correlation or not). Furthermore, it's impossible to perform an objective empirical study, since, after all, many folks with lower scores may not end up going to college, or at least not comparable colleges.
posted by casu marzu at 10:51 AM on March 8, 2005

Following jb's link to that horrid slideshow, here's another "guide" to teaching kids the 5P form....

The Five Paragraph Essay


I think that since so much emphasis is placed on its importance in judging one's potential to succeed, people just assume that it is the only way to do write an analytical essay or something.
posted by aGreatNotion at 1:15 PM on March 8, 2005

a GreatNotion's link isn't so bad - it at least gets to the idea that your subpoints support your thesis, even if it does insist on calling them "subtopics". Why this use of the word "topic"? A topic is something like "koalas". A thesis/point is an arguable statement, e.g. "koalas are viscious brutes that like to rip people's eyes out and eat them."
posted by jb at 4:54 PM on March 8, 2005

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