Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Coleman's New SAT

The unveiling of David Coleman's New, Improved SAT Suite is just around the corner, and that means its time to ramp up the marketing blitz for this great new product.

The College Board website is freshly festooned with a festive font that shows that the new SAT Suite is ready to hang with the cool kids. I mean, you can follow the SAT on twitter! All the young persons are following the twitter, right?

The whole business seems charmingly cheesy in its commercial crassness, but it stands as one more part of David Coleman's crusade to redefine what it means to be an educated person in this country. We've been watching this come down the pike for a while; what can we spot now that it's almost here?

I Can Has Skillz

The new SAT comes complete with a new motto-- "skilled it." And copywriters have made sure that theme permeates the site. "Bank on skills." "Show off your skills." "Let's talk skills." "Skill Mail." "Calling all skills." "U of Skill."  "Skilled in class. Skilled for college." "Take the test that measures the real skills you've learned in class to show colleges you've got what it takes." Can you spot the unifying feature here? Only one of the blurby graphics mentions the K word-- "Show off the skills and knowledge colleges want most."

The SAT suite has been brought in line with the many unappealing qualities of the Common Core-- a disregard bordering on antipathy when it comes to actual content knowledge.

Granted, the SAT has always been a soul-sucking hypocrite when it comes to this issue, subjecting generations of students to verbal tests that claimed to measure reasoning while actually just being expensive, complicated vocabulary tests. But our new goal seems to be to turn the SAT into PARCC's step-brother. I could, if I wished, prepare my students for the Big Standardized Core test by doing nothing all year but reading newspaper articles and pages from storybooks, followed by multiple choice questions. Coleman wants to take the SAT to that place-- the place where a student's worth is judged by their ability to perform the right tricks.

This is the Coleman vision of education. An educated person doesn't Know Things. And educated person can Do Things. After all, what's the point in knowing things if you can't turn your knowledge into deliverables, use it to add value, grab it like a might crowbar that you can use to pry open the secret moneybanks of the world. Do you think Coleman had to know anything to write the Core or re-configure the SAT? Of course not-- he just had to Get Things Done. An educated person has marketable skills. What else do you need?

Co-opting Khan

Part of the new SAT initiative has been to try to shut down the lucrative SAT prep industry, and to that end, the College Board has teamed up with Khan Academy to provide free test prep of their own. There's even a nifty video of Coleman and Khan videoconferencing about how swell it all is; Coleman seems to think that the Khan academy stuff will achieve college and career readiness all on its own (because that's the core of what it's all about now).

Free seems like an excellent price, especially to build such brand recognition. I'm just going to go ahead and type "There's been such a demand for more tools that give more in depth preparation that we are pleased to make these available for a small fee" now so that I can link back to it a year from now when I want to show off my prognostication skills.

Not For Stupid Eggheads

The new SAT push has been weirdly anti-intellectual. The website is repeatedly clear about how it has thrown off the shambling shackles of smarmy smartitude, pointing out that the test will measure what you learned in high school (provided your school followed Coleman's blueprints) and what you need to succeed in college (a bullshit claim that's not backed up with anything concrete for the same reason that Coleman can list the tools you need to trap a Yeti). And this:

If you think the key to a high score is memorizing words and facts you’ll never use in the real world, think again. You don’t have to discover secret tricks or cram the night before.

Yup. They list the secrets of success: take hard courses, do your homework, prepare for tests (but not with test prep?) and ask and answer lots of questions.

So What's Inside?

In addition to links to the Khan stuff, the site has samples and explanations for each of the test sections. A page gives a general description, noting once again that cramming facts and flashcards won't be necessary, and takes a chatty tone, even using the word "stuff."


The reading intro includes a sideways definition of reading, opening with the lilting line, "A lot more goes into reading than you might realize — and the Reading Test measures a range of reading skills." That includes Command of Evidence, Words in Context, and Analysis in History/Social Studies and in Science.

A quick look at the sample questions shows selections including Ethan Frome, a piece about commuting's cost in productivity, a piece about turtles navigating sea migration, and a 1974 speech by Barbara Jordan (all excerpts, of course). The intro to the Jordan speech lets us know that it was delivered in the context of impeachment hearings against Richard Nixon, and it opens with this paragraph:

Today I am an inquisitor. An hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution as a whole, it is complete, it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.

It also includes a quote from Federalist No. 65. Then it asks what the best description of Jordan's stance would be (correct answer-- an idealist setting forth principles). And, as seems required in standardized reading tests, a couple of question require the test-taker to speculate on the author's thoughts, feelings, and intent. This test is well-aligned with all the other BS Tests that Common Core has inflicted on us.

Writing and Language

Well, now I just want to punch myself in the brain. This is basically an editing exercise, with a certain amount of spelling, punctuation and usage questions, along with a few tasks that involve making the stylistic choice preferred by the kind of boring white-bread dull writers whose work is favored by test manufacturers. The goal is to insure that nobody on earth could have prior knowledge of the content, so the work is often selected from the Big Book of the Most Boring Damn Pieces of Writing Ever Written, so that it's a chore just to look at their lifeless prose spread out against the page like a patient etherized upon a table.

SAT Essay

I have a sneaking suspicion that Coleman oversaw this makeover personally. You'll read a passage, explain how the author builds an argument to persuade the audience, support your explanation with evidence from the text. You have fifty whole minutes to do it and--

You won't be asked to agree or disagree with a position on a topic or to write about your personal experience.

In other words, the top scoring essays should all be close to identical.

Worst. Standardized. Writing. Test. Ever.

The only good part is that it's optional. Somehow, I don't see any colleges finding this particularly useful.

Key Content Differences

So what's actually different about the test? Well, the College Board says these are the key changes--

Words in context-- "Many questions on the new SAT focus on important, widely used words and phrases found in texts in many different subjects." I'm not sure how the College Board measures importance of words and phrases, but I do know that description sounds like part of the cover copy for the dozens of new test prep books about to come out so that people know what to put on their flashcards when they're cramming the night before.

Command of evidence-- The College Board already knows what the point of a selection is, and they already know which words and phrases in the selection are the important evidence. In effect, the College Board has figured out how to turn a multi-paragraph excerpt into a larger, trickier multiple choice question. As always, no personal thinking or interpreting allowed. Read the selection and come up with the right answer, supported by the right evidence for the right reasons.

That's exactly how college works, right??

Math that matters most-- You know I'm not a math teacher. The CB tells us what Most Important Mat is on the test. But the methodology described seems... well... "Current research shows that these areas are used disproportionately in a wide range of majors and careers." So, you know-- know only the things that will help you get a job. College is High Class Vocational Training, right? That's what an educated person is, right-- someone who knows how to leverage what they can do into a nice payday?

Also, they repeat their line about how all this will be real-world related. You know, like Ethan Fromme and Barbara Jordan's 1974 speech quoting the Federalist papers in regards to Nixon's impeachment.

Oh-- that last part goes with the new SAT focus on US Founding Documents and the Great Global Conversation they started. Really.

Expanding the market 

Of course, the context of all this is not just David Coleman's desire to impose his own vision of education on the entire country. The context is also that the College Board needs to get revenue rolling into their cash-strapped coffers.

Some of this they have accomplished by conning some states into making every student take the test. And they've had government-backed success with other products, like the AP tests that are part of some schools' evaluation. I know I'm just a simple English teacher, but I would love to sit in on the conversation where a corporate rep convinces elected representatives that it's a good idea to make all the citizens of a state buy his product. It's impressive and unprecedented.

But that's not enough-- the SAT folks are also expanding their reach by adding new testy treats, like the PSAT 8/9, "a test that will help you and your teachers figure out what you need to work on most so that you're ready for college when you graduate from high school." It tests the same stuff as the SAT, PSAT and PSAT 10 (Oh, yeah-- there's a PSAT 10, too) so that your students can be using our products throughout their entire career. Ka-ching!! And what could be better test prep than taking the test manufacturers test prep test annually?

Not enough cross-marketing? Don't forget-- the PSAT will now give you recommendations for which AP courses you should be taking! Ka-chingggggggg!!

College Board's Big Roll of the Dice

This could go great for the CB. Just as the PARCC made noises about encroaching on their territory (why don't colleges just go ahead and use Core Test scores for college admission), the SAT is now positioned to push the various Common Core Big Standardized Tests right out of the market. They've already got the product, they have the experience, and they're run by the guy who wrote half the standards you're trying to test. Plus, they already have a long standing (if unfounded) claim to being monumental measurers of post-secondary preparedness.

With so much product and government backing, they could do the Coke and Pepsi trick of pushing all other colas off the grocery store shelves.

On the other hand, even more colleges could decide to do the right thing and stop holding their future students hostage to a money-sucking test industry that still, after years of playing this game, does not predict future college success better than a student's high school grade point average. The rewrite of the SAT could be David Coleman's New Coke, finally highlighting just how obsolete and useless his product is. This could finally kill the beast.

We shall wait and see. In the meantime, I will stay obnoxiously optimistic and partially positive. Also, I'll grudgingly round up test prep materials for my suffering juniors.

1 comment:

  1. Things that make you go, "Hmm."

    "About 10,000 incoming freshmen at state colleges enroll in no-credit remedial courses across the state every year. This year, that number will drop to zero. The courses will no longer be offered at state colleges once Public Act 12-40 goes into effect this fall semester. Signed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in 2012, the act requires colleges to abandon lower-level, no-credit remedial courses and embed support into entry-level courses or a college-readiness program. High school graduates who do not place into entry-level courses by way of adequate SAT scores or college entry exams will be out of luck."

    Because it's a requirement of RTT:

    "IHEs will ultimately use the data from PARCC assessments to exempt from
    remedial courses and place into first-year, credit-bearing college courses in English and mathematics any student who meets the consortium-adopted achievement standard for college-readiness. "