Friday, March 7, 2014

WHY Dumb Down the SAT Even More Than It Is?

Back in August last year, I explained how and why the SAT can no longer be regarded as a qualifying test for entry into Mensa, or any of the other high I.Q. societies, e.g.

This quoted Dr. Abby Salny, Mensa psychometrician - who responded to a question in the 1994 March Mensa Bulletin, pointing out the SAT had ceased to be an aptitude test, and had become instead an achievement test. The latter's basis being merely to test knowledge accumulated as opposed to one's aptitude for acquiring new knowledge and applying it in different ways. In the words of Dr. Salny:

"Mensa's Constitution says 'IQ test or equivalent'. This means we can take a test that measures learning aptitude, but not a test that measures exclusively what has been taught in school. The whole purpose of Mensa was not to reward high scholastic achievement but to recognize intellectual giftedness. The two are not synonymous.

--- In short, any test that we have rejected, or that we will reject in the future, has changed content from IQ or equivalent to content mastery. Our Constitution mandates this and we are trying to follow our Constitution

In effect, and in a literal sense, the SAT had been "dumbed down".   I define any test as having been altered from aptitude to achievement - including the GRE since 2001 - as having been 'dumbed down', since that attribute most linked to intelligence is no longer needed - say to score an 800 on a verbal or quantitative section.

Now, it appears, another dumbing down change is in the works (Denver Post, Mar. 6, 'SAT to Undergo Major Overhaul', p. 15A).  This is scheduled to go into effect when today's high school freshmen take it in 2016. According to College Board officials, quoted in the Denver Post account, "they want to make the SAT more accessible, straightforward and grounded in what is taught in high school". Commendable, except for the fact colleges want to know - or should - how these kids will potentially perform at the college level - which ought to be much more demanding than high school! Has everyone missed the memo that college was never intended to be for everyone, nor should it be? (As reflected in recurring stats showing how few of those attending actually graduate from college after 5 years.)  College perhaps is not exclusively for an elite minority, but it will never be for the majority either - hence the need for more technical, vocational schools as in Germany.

 A further objective of the SAT re-do (ibid.):

"It aims to strip many of the tricks out of a test administered to more than 1.5 million high school students graduating every year."

The 'tricks' refers to short cuts that can be taken to arrive at solutions, for example in the quantitative section, and often in the verbal. Since the SAT (like the GRE) is a timed test, one doesn't have unlimited time to work out problems, or resolve verbal conundrums or essays - you have to be able to deliver rapid responses....or do poorly. The 'tricks' helped in getting the higher scores and were even evident in the 'old' days when the SAT was still an aptitude test.

Often too, these tricks would be coached or taught if one could afford to attend pricey SAT prep classes, Not surprisingly, most of those were only available to affluent upper crust kids - who could afford to splurge. The rest of us, say from lower middle -class homes, had to just get a good night's sleep and hope for the best. Usually, the clock operated against us because we weren't au fait with the numerous tricks, strategies to shave off precious minutes.  One could first take the PSAT then the actual SAT, of course, but usually the enhancement in score wasn't even half of a standard deviation.

In the new version offered what is being called  a do-over of the SAT, there will be "test preparation tutorials for free online" - which is a good thing and with which I have no quibble.  My quibble in terms of 'dumbing down' comes with the decision, for example, to replace difficult vocabulary words (say like 'phlegmatic', 'punctilious' and 'occlusion') with words widely used in college and careers, say like "empirical" and "hardware". WOW! That's a big challenge! Let me think now, um...uh....hardware....doh!

The fact is the original verbal aptitude requirements really did show if the student was ready to enter college. But you know, maybe in today's dumbed down college- university world, i.e. where 60% of all Harvard students can get As, it doesn't matter. The environment is so dumbed down from the overuse of teachers' evaluations and grade inflation, that profs will grants As or Bs for just submitting an essay or a lab report, never mind the poor grammar or incorrect use of words - or errors of fact and measurement (in labs).

When I entered Loyola, I discovered just how challenging advanced English Lit was despite performing in the verbal SATs at the 89th percentile level. It was all I could to keep up, including delivering essays and literature analyses every week.  I imagined that had I performed much lower, say in the 60th percentile, I'd have really been hard put to keep up. (Though at that level, often students entered basic English classes, as opposed to advance.)

Sam Blumenfeld in his 'Education Letter' confirms much of this, noting:

The latest verbal scores for the class of 2011 are the lowest on record. Indeed, the combined reading and math scores have fallen to their lowest level since 1995. No surprise when you consider that No Child Left Behind has just about left every child in the government schools very far behind.

There is actually no better evidence documenting the dumbing-down process than the SAT scores. For example, in 1972, 2,817 students achieved a verbal score of 750 to 800, the highest possible score. In 1987, only 1,363 students achieved that score. In 1994, it was up slightly to 1,438. In other words, over a thousand smarties became dumber.

He goes on to reinforce this:

In 1994, the verbal “average” was 423, some 77 points below the 500 average, and the math “average” of 479 was 21 points below the 500 average.

Which meant that even the 469 average verbal score made by independent school test takers was well below the 1941 average of 500! And yet those same test takers scored 54 points above the 1994 average of 423. In other words, in 1994 the average student was a lot dumber than the average student of 1941, and the smarter students in 1994 were dumber than the average students of 1941.

He then quoted the College Board explanation, to wit:

Beginning with the high school class of 1996, the College Board will recenter the scales, based on a more contemporary reference group. This means that the average score will once again be at or about the center of the scale — 500 — for a new reference group from the 1990s....

Setting the average verbal and math scores at 500 means that most students’ scores will be higher. So if a student scored a verbal score of about 430 and a math score of about 470 before recentering, the score would be about 500 for both verbal and math when the test is recentered.

But, as Blumenfeld points out, this re-centering is largely a gimmick, a statistical device to make scores appear higher than they are.  As he puts it:

Now you see it, now you don’t. It reminded me of a shell game, using numbers to deceive the public. Everyone’s score will suddenly go up.

This trend is something to be aware of and I am sure the College Board has also been aware of it. Another reason perhaps to lower the demands of the test.  Could there be a monetary or profit motive behind it, given students have to cough up $$$ to take the test? According to the Post (ibid.):

"The initiative comes as the 88-year old test in recent years has slipped behind the rival ACT - a shorter exam with an optional essay - in total student customers."

So there you have it! The College Board is losing "total student customers", i.e. money!  So the same consumption aspect that explains why colleges dumb down, i.e. to keep their student customers (awarding As like free popcorn, and dumping the 'hard' courses)  also  accounts for why the test makers do likewise. If they don't do it, the students race off to take the easier test, the ACT!

Sadly, this shows our educational system-  at both the high school and the college levels-  is really becoming less and less imbued with quality - as it strives to go for quantity, including quantity of those dollars flowing into the coffers.

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