Friday, March 17, 2006

SAT Troubles

What does "SAT" stand for? As of 1997, the acronym no longer has any meaning. But in 1926, when the test first appeared, those three letters meant "Scholastic Aptitude Test." In 1994, the new definition for the acronym became "Scholastic Assessment Tests," but accusations of eugenics—or something—arose. Therefore, College Board's official position now is that "SAT" doesn't stand for anything.

Achievement on SAT-testing has become an important part of the college-admissions process. Some students begin preparations for the test as early as sixth grade. I'm not kidding! I've worked with some of those driven young people and their parents. Most students, however, wait until their high-school years to begin formal preparation. They purchase one or more of the many study guides available. Taking sample tests and studying various techniques to "beat the test," including discriminatory skipping of questions, students seeking admission to prestigious universities, work through thick volumes of material. In addition, students enroll in special preparatory classes so as to fill in gaps and to boost their scores. Gone are the days when students seeking college admission rely on what they learned in the classroom to get them into college.

Since last year's revamping of the the SAT's, taking the test has become even more stressful for college applicants. The verbal section no longer contains analogies—which used to be the bane of many test-takers, and now students wade through more reading passages, both short and long, as well as sentence-completion items with advanced vocabulary. A new multiple-choice portion, "Writing," tests style and grammar elements and also includes editing a provided composition. Verbal items are no longer limited to multiple-choice, and students have twenty-five minutes to handwrite an original essay in answer to a prompt. In the mathematics section, the level of material has been raised to reflect the new emphasis on the earlier introduction of algebra and the addition of pre-calculus, and students are allowed to use a calculator. Because of the change in the test-format and a lack in statistics as to what the scores mean, many colleges admit uncertainty about proper interpretation of the scores.

As of last week, an unexpected element appeared with regard to the New SAT's—the validity of recent scoring. According to an article in the March 20, 2006 edition of Newsweek, thousands of students who took their SAT's have received incorrect scores, scores which have been raised or lowered according to the whim of the scanners used to read the answer sheets:

"...Last Wednesday, five months after he took the exam, [high-school senior Robert] Smith received an e-mail from the College Board, which administers the tests, telling him that his SAT had been scored inaccurately. He had actually earned a 1780 (out of 2400 on the three-part test), 50 points higher than what had been reported to his family—and his first-choice school, Hofstra University. 'I would've never imagined something like this could happen,' Smith says. 'This is the SAT—not the math quiz you take on Friday.'...

"[A] handful of students who got low numbers last fall might have lowered their sights accordingly. That's what happened to Robert Smith. Last December, a rep from Boston University—the school he'd really wanted to go to—told him his SAT wasn't high enough, so I got discouraged and didn't apply. Now, with the change, my math score is at the top end. I missed the early-admissions deadline. By the time I apply for admission in March, they could be full.'

"How was the whole mess ever detected in the first place? The College Board says that late last year, two students asked for their tests to be rescored. When the results showed that they had been improperly scanned, the board asked for a larger sample of tests to be checked."
Apparently, the students' bubble sheets, on which answers are marked during the testing process, were stored for just a few hours in a damp warehouse in Austin, Texas. The paper expanded enough to affect alignment, and, therefore, the scanners used to score these tests inaccurately read the students' answers.

According to a March 10, 2006 article in the Washington Post, SAT scores are but one of the criteria used for admission to college:
"Ted O'Neill, admissions dean at the University of Chicago, said the mistakes in the SAT scores made no difference to any of his institution's 35 affected applicants because 'scores don't really matter very much, and in most cases, not at all.'

"'We have a lot of information about the kids that we think is more important,' he said."
Such is the official position of the colleges. But the truth is that, for colleges requiring the test, SAT scores have assumed greater importance, especially as the reliability of high-school grades has deteriorated. Part of the reason for changing the format of the SAT's last year is inflated grading on the part of high schools. Another reason for changing the test is the proliferation of cheating on college applications; for a fee, students can hire someone to write the application-essay for them. As a result of the tainted materials submitted to admissions offices, many colleges have been forced to deal with incompetence in freshmen's writing skills, and that incompetence has resulted in the proliferation of remedial courses, the cost of which is a sizeable burden on the finances of American colleges of all types. Even the non-remedial English courses have been, of necessity, dumbed down.

Insofar as is yet known, only a very small percentage of SAT scores seems to have been affected by the recent scanning errors. Most are small errors in the points' totals. But in a few cases, the scores were off by 100-130 points—a significant difference in today's competitive atmosphere for college admission. In addition, another question has now arisen: Are even more SAT scores skewed? That question remains to be answered; indeed, it may be unanswerable.

Talk of litigation has appeared, of course. But the impact of errors in SAT-scoring goes beyond anything which a court can solve.

20 Comments:

At 3/17/2006 9:44 PM, Blogger Mr. Ducky said...

Bad scanners? Must have the same electronics as the Diebold Ohio vote tabulation machines.

 
At 3/17/2006 10:04 PM, Blogger Shah Alexander said...

Exam changes as the time goes by. I hear similar changes happen in the TOEFL, Test of English as a Foreign Language, which is required for non-native English speakers to apply for colleges in North America. In this test, vocabulary section has disappeared, and more reading has taken place of it.

Any tests need to satisfy up-to-date requirements. Today, Greek and Latin words are not so frequently used as it was in the past. Sentences are getting simpler. It is logical to shift the focus on rapid reading.

But scoring must be reliable. Some trials and errors may happen when something changes. However, students should not be sacrificed.

 
At 3/17/2006 10:18 PM, Blogger Mr. Beamish the Instablepundit said...

Ducky,

Just because they don't let idiots enroll in applied sciences classes doesn't mean you liberal arts poseurs can make up science fiction stories about disenfranchised Kerry voters and have them resonate.

You Democrats need a new game plan.

And while y'all are at it, get over losing the Civil War. It's been 140 years. Black people exist outside Election Day, you know.

 
At 3/17/2006 10:33 PM, Blogger Always On Watch said...

Shah,
But scoring must be reliable. Some trials and errors may happen when something changes. However, students should not be sacrificed.

College Board, so far, has refused to reveal just which students got which scores--despite questions from several universities. The entire situation is a mess. Qualified students were turned away, and unqualified students were admitted.

I'm concerned that more errors have occurred than have been admitted to.

 
At 3/17/2006 10:34 PM, Blogger Always On Watch said...

Technology is wonderful when it works. I can't even get my phone line fixed, so I'm still stuck with this slow dial-up access. My troubles with the phone company is now past the two-month mark.

 
At 3/17/2006 10:35 PM, Blogger Always On Watch said...

Duck,
Not bad scanners. Damp papers.

 
At 3/18/2006 2:29 PM, Blogger American Crusader said...

Well you're a teacher, so you know the most important aspect of the SAT is that it is Reliable and Valid.
In the past, the SAT has been proven to be both. It is not just a test of academic achievement but it is also a prognosticator for future success at the college level. I know when I went to grad school, I took a preparatory class for the GRE(basically an SAT for college graduates)and it did improve my scores.
Colleges have to rely on the SAT because it is the only common denominator among applicants. In A+ in in inner-city public school is not equal to in A+ in a high achieving prep school.

You would think that by now they would have scanners that accurately did the job.

 
At 3/18/2006 2:31 PM, Blogger American Crusader said...

I really need to start previewing my comments before I post them.

 
At 3/18/2006 5:00 PM, Blogger Iran Watch said...

I wonder how many people know the difference between reliability and validity? I had to take the ACT when I was in high school. I don't know if they even use that test anymore.

 
At 3/18/2006 5:24 PM, Blogger MissingLink said...

Well, this is all allien to me, we have a very diffrent system.
Not better but probably not worse.
We also have many stuff-ups in scoring - I think it comes with the territory.

 
At 3/18/2006 7:21 PM, Blogger Cubed © said...

"...unqualified students were admitted."

Yeah. . . I wonder what that Taliban guy who was admitted to Yale with a 4th grade education got on his SAT?

 
At 3/18/2006 7:39 PM, Blogger WomanHonorThyself said...

What about when they require math skills for professions wherein one doesnt use one iota of Math?..The GRE's round here are heavy on mathematics which scares pple away from attending grad school in some cases.

 
At 3/18/2006 8:08 PM, Blogger Always On Watch said...

Iran Watch,
Some universities accept the ACT, but not all. A few years ago, one of my homeschool students opted to take the ACT instead of the SAT's. I believe that the reason was that he didn't have to send in the results until he saw those results; also, the ACT would report the scores separately for each section, and the university would look at only the best of the scores from multiple testing-sessions. He tried the SAT's, but didn't as well as on the ACT.

Some univsities accept only SAT's. As a result, more study guides are available for the SAT's.

 
At 3/18/2006 8:14 PM, Blogger Always On Watch said...

Crusader,
For most college applicants, the SAT is a decent measure of success at the college level. There are exceptions, of course.

Colleges have to rely on the SAT because it is the only common denominator among applicants.

True.

SAT's given at different times of the year reflect the differing pools of those taking the test. Typically, the October test is more competitive because those seeking early admission test at that time; those particular students are often AP or IB.

The possibility of scanner errors is the latest glitch in the college-application process. As more information becomes available about the recent errors, I'm wondering how widespread the errors are.

 
At 3/18/2006 8:15 PM, Blogger Always On Watch said...

WHT,
What about when they require math skills for professions wherein one doesnt use one iota of Math?..The GRE's round here are heavy on mathematics

Many colleges require little or no math courses for those who are graduating at the college level, but along comes the GRE to test what may not even matter.

 
At 3/18/2006 8:17 PM, Blogger Always On Watch said...

Cubed,
How did the Taliban guy get admitted? Money, I would guess, along with some lobbying.

I wonder if he took an ESOL test?

 
At 3/18/2006 8:18 PM, Blogger Always On Watch said...

Missing Link,
stuff-ups in scoring

I like that word "stuff-ups"!

 
At 3/18/2006 8:19 PM, Blogger Always On Watch said...

Beamish,
Black people exist outside Election Day, you know.

A visiting ET wouldn't know that without a cycle of observation.

 
At 3/18/2006 8:34 PM, Blogger Always On Watch said...

From Colman McCarthy, director of the Center for Teaching Peace:

"[As a guest teacher] I have never given a test. I respect my students too much to demean them with exercises in fake knowledge....I know of no meaningful evidence that acing tests has anything to do with students' character development or whether their natureal instincts for idealism or altruism are nurtured."

McCarthy's commentary appeared in today's Washington Post. Of course, he despises standardized tests. He proudly proclaims that he assigns tons of homework--all touchy-feely assignments.

McCarthy sounds like a utopian to me.

And in some of my teacher-training classes, I had professors just like him.

 
At 3/18/2006 10:45 PM, Blogger WomanHonorThyself said...

Oh I linked to this post btw...smiles

 

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