Friday, August 1, 2014
PLACERVILLE, CALIFORNIA
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Franckly speaking: Does the redesigned SAT test measure what matters most?

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From page A4 | March 24, 2014 |

After 10 years, the College Board is once again changing the college entrance exam called the SAT. It’s all about fitting questions to the real world, they say. I guess they have their ideas about the real world and I have mine.

According to the College Board, “The redesigned SAT (to be released in 2016) will be more focused on the few things shown by current research to matter most in college and career.”

Sex, beer and rock ‘n’ roll?

Scratch that. What pops into my mind as mattering most in college and career are persistence, good decision-making and the ability to find work you love.

These are not what the College Board has in mind. They want to a write a test that accurately predicts who will get good grades and graduate from college. Period.

The new test has many changes. Instead of memorizing obscure vocabulary, students must demonstrate that they understand words in context. The math section will go more deeply into fewer topics. In reading passages, students will evaluate evidence and analyze persuasion.

The essay becomes optional.

I like that part about figuring out how you’re being persuaded (it would be even better if they add something about why) but, as a writer, I gasped at the demise of the essay. After I read further, however, I understood that the College Board does not feel essay writing is unimportant but rather that their test didn’t test it well.

This was not the only flaw in the old SAT. Since I was a teenager, the test has been assigning a penalty for wrong answers, and students have been learning when to guess and when to leave an answer blank. Tutors and test-taking services help students understand the ins and outs of this process.

Students who couldn’t afford tutoring? Oh well.

But the College Board says it will try to do better for them, too. They will offer application fee waivers to needy students and online tutoring to everyone. Online tutoring is unlikely to be as good as personal instruction, but it represents a nod in the right direction.

What I’d like to see from the SAT, however, is an exam that predicts how students will do when life gets tough, not only in college, but afterwards. This is where the College Board and I part ways. They want to predict who will graduate. I want to predict who will live a good life.

Here are three skills I wish we could test:

Ability to know when to persevere and when to quit.

College is often where young people discover that they’re not good at everything. They’ve been telling parents and friends forever that they’re going to be doctors, but sophomore year organic chemistry chews them up and spits them out.

Students who can recognize the difference between a temporary setback and a road sign that says “change course” are well on their way to finding work they love.

I would flunk this part of the test. I chose a field where a good memory was key — and I didn’t have one.

I should have discarded my freshman year boyfriend as soon as I found out he was making and consuming his own booze — in huge quantities.

Ability to choose what to pay attention to.

I’m experiencing my own crisis on this score. In an attempt to remain current, I communicate via cell phone, e-mail and text. I lurk on Facebook, where I succumb to videos about funny pets. I belong to two neighborhood listservs, one in Coloma and one in Davis, that tell me about propane price gouging and a local ice cream truck whose music is too loud. I hang around for the back-and-forth discussion of issues like these.

I put whole good books aside to read short stuff that brings nothing new or important to my brain, and yet I can’t stop myself.

We need a test that identifies young people who, despite all these distractions, are able to devote most of their time to tasks where they learn.

Ability to see beyond what is right in front of you.

Standardized tests are all about hunching over and looking close in order to blacken the circles completely, but real life involves vision that is wider, deeper and more subtle.

The phenomenon I’ve been thinking about recently is the tendency of young people to dismiss old people because they look old. Even old people dismiss other old people, for the same reason.

We need to cultivate the part of seeing that is not done with the eyes, but with a brain that tells you to pay attention and a heart that tells you to care. I’d love to teach at a college where students had been tested for this and where the classrooms were full of those who scored well.

But we don’t know how to test for such qualities. The College Board’s tinkering with the SAT only reminds us of that.

Marion Franck is a columnist for the Davis Enterprise. She is a part-time resident of El Dorado County.

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