Wednesday, October 6, 2010

6 October 2010 Op-Ed in The State

Stop focusing on SAT

With the release of 2010 data on the SAT and the concurrent handwringing over scores, SC should take this opportunity—with the weight of economic decline challenging our schools—to drop our charge to raise SAT scores and to increase the number of students taking the SAT.

The bold moves we should make instead are ending all SAT-prep courses in our schools, banning further purchases of SAT-prep materials and software, and encouraging all colleges across the state to become SAT-optional.

Let's consider first why our current SAT goals are destined to fail.

In SC, we are seeking two goals (raising SAT scores and increasing the number of students taking the SAT) that, in fact, contradict one another. These goals have created a statistical and ethical problem for our state.

The pool of students taking the SAT ten or twenty years ago (before we began to encourage more students to take the test) was a unique population that was more elite than the normal distribution of students. Once we began encouraging more students to take the test, the pool of test takers shifted toward the normal distribution.

The statistical problem we face as a state is the exact reason the College Board re-centered the SAT in 1995: When you move a unique and elite population toward the normal distribution by increasing that population, the statistical average must move toward the middle, thus down.

The ethical problem: Raising an average score while shifting an elite population toward a normal distribution can occur only by corrupting the data (through test taking instruction, for example, which also distorts the validity of the data in terms of reflecting student ability).

So SC must either see our average drop as we increase the pool of test takers (a public relations nightmare for politicians and schools) or we must distort the data from the test by teaching to the test (rendering the test even less credible).

Beyond the contradiction of our SAT goals, SC should become SAT-free because of the wealth of evidence that the test is not worth the expense of time and money invested by our public schools:

• Schools across SC and the US have dedicated large amounts of financial resources and school time to the SAT during the parallel growth of accountability mandates, yet, as a study at shows, SAT scores have dropped along with a widening of the achievement gap on the test during the accountability era. In short, SAT goals and school reform goals are also conflicting agendas.

• The College Board's own research has shown as recently as 2008 that SAT scores are less effective than GPA for predicting freshman grades (the only purpose of the SAT).

• A 2010 Harvard study has confirmed a 2003 study that the SAT is inherently biased against minority students; the SAT also works against our efforts to address life and educational inequities for all students.

• The College Board in 2002 issued a statement denouncing the historical and flawed use of SAT average scores to judge and rank schools and state educational systems. Since the media persist in ignoring this warning, states should remove the misleading data from the debate.

Before discarding the SAT, however, we should consider the key powerful lesson that the test has provided year after year.

Let's start with the facts of who takes the SAT. The pool of students taking the SAT is more elite academically and financially than the general population of students. As they are college-bound and elite, these students are also enrolled in more challenging courses than the general population of students. Those students taking the more challenging courses, then, are also enrolled in the classes of the most experienced and highly qualified teachers.

The lesson? Despite the relative affluence of students taking the SAT, despite their rigorous course loads, despite the high quality of their teachers, what are the strongest correlations with their scores?

SAT scores are now and have always been most strongly correlated with the income level of the parents and the educational background of the parents.

The SAT has a much stronger reputation than it deserves; it is no more useful than GPA, which is free. And continuing to fret over and work toward goals tied to the SAT is time and money wasted that would be better spent addressing poverty and its impact on students' lives and achievement in our schools.

Instead of chasing contradictory SAT goals, SC should reignite the charge against the SAT begun a decade ago in California. If SC would now commit to becoming SAT-free, we would be seeking an outcome that is both achievable and in the best interest of our students and our state.

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