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Upcoming Changes in the SAT are Bad for Education

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Parents, beware! Those of you who have younger teens still in junior high may be shocked to find that, less than a decade after the Scholastic Assessment Test's groundbreaking 2005 overhaul, which added an essay section, the test is changing yet again. NBC reports that the SAT is doing away with the mandatory essay section - now allowing it to be optional and scored separately - and is returning to a grading scale of 1600. Though many may cheer this SAT reform, and the others announced by the College Board, which designs and administers the exam, I worry that de-emphasizing the essay, and formal vocabulary, is harmful to education.

The death of the mandatory SAT essay is a sling to many an English teacher's heart. Students' writing skills today are atrophying rapidly as txt spk overrides proper grammar and spelling. Many of my Advanced Placement seniors have abysmal writing - and they still take the mandatory SAT essay! How much worse will teens' writing get if the SAT essay becomes optional?

There is no substitute for good writing. Knowing the "SAT-words" and their synonyms, antonyms, and analogies is not sufficient to make one a proficient written communicator. Only the ability to craft clear, legible sentences and paragraphs, strung and bound together with proper spelling and grammar, indicates that one has the written communication skills to be a leader, trainer, and educator. It is the gold standard. Removing the mandatory essay removes the incentive for most high school students to care about being a good writer. How will these students later develop into the leaders, trainers, and educators our society needs?

In a related issue, even though the College Board claims that de-emphasizing "SAT-word" vocabulary in favor of "words that are widely used in college and career" is a good move, as a bibliophile I worry that it may be a move that decreases the rigor of vocabulary development. The SAT exam has long been a reason to encourage students to expand their horizons in terms of reading and writing. Letting teenagers know that the new "SAT-words" will be more common may dissuade them from pushing their limits in terms of vocabulary. At its worst, critics could call it a "dumbing down" of SAT vocab.

The change in SAT scoring to not deduct any points for wrong answers will likely further weaken the test's rigor. Previously, students lost 1/4 of a point for every wrong answer and no points for an omitted answer, but the new version will only involve adding points for correct answers. Though NBC reports that critics opined that the current SAT tacitly encourages students not to guess, I find that system to be preferable. In the real world, and in the vast majority of academic assessments, you lose points for incorrect answers. You are encouraged to focus on doing things right.

Removing penalties for incorrect answers weakens the incentive to study, focus, and use good test-taking strategy. It encourages "spray and pray" test-taking. Students may not study or focus as hard if they know that wrong answers will not be penalized, perhaps leading to lower scores. On the other hand, scores for some students may be unfairly high due to occasional correct guesses. With the current system, students who are rampant guessers are likely to be sufficiently penalized by wrong answers for the few correct answers to be neutralized. What about with the new system?

Finally, and perhaps just due to my own nostalgia of taking the pre-2005 SAT on paper in a cold college gymnasium with a No. 2 pencil, I dislike the option of a digital SAT taken on a computer. I feel that more academic and intellectual rigor is encouraged by writing and doing work with pencil and paper as opposed to with a mouse and keyboard. Certainly, with text messaging having erased the desire to have anything approaching decent handwriting or penmanship, the ability to write the [optional] SAT essay via keyboard instead of by hand does the art of calligraphy no favors. On a more pertinent level, I worry that taking tests on a computer encourages students to go too fast and be less engaged in the mental process. By missing out on the stimuli of handwriting and handling physical test booklets many students may be less engaged in the test and therefore score lower. It's hard for things to feel as real, sometimes, when it's all point-and-click.

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