Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Doubleplusgood New SAT Duckspeak

In the past several days I have read so many articles and heard so many talk-show discussions on the big SAT changes announced by the College Board, that I just had to tune out.   I hit my doublethink quota on day two.  By day three after the announcement, I had to shut down or risk becoming a doubleplusgood duckspeaker.

The Ministry of Plenty (aka The College Board) has made adjustments to this famous test and presumably it will benefit the proletariat, the commoner, the peasants, the hoi-polloi.  Color me skeptical, but I’m not ready to jump for joy just yet.

The SAT has been long-detested by many.  It is especially abhorred by those who take it unprepared.


There are five things about the SAT that students hate:

1.  Math problems are presented in a tricky way.
      2.  An essay must be written in 25 minutes.
      3.  The vocabulary is arcane.
      4.  The critical reading passages are dense and, again, the questions try to trip up the test  taker.
      5.  The test is almost 4 hours long.


The new SAT promises to be less tricky, although now for some sections of the math, a student may not use a calculator. I don’t see how this can help anyone except the students who are very competent with math and who do not need a calculator.  I think that the academically disadvantaged student is going to struggle without a calculator.  Also, if the math is to be more like ACT math, then it will include more trigonometry.  Again, I ask, how is this going to help the academically disadvantaged students?

The essay is now optional, but this only helps students who are not applying to selective colleges.  Those colleges are going to require the essay.  Students aiming at schools that are traditionally hard to get into will still write the essay; everyone else won’t have to.  What does this tell you?  The bar has lowered – true.  But for whom?  Less selective schools have claimed that they do not look at the writing score anyway, which is just appalling because the writing score is NOT just the essay.  Included in that score (through multiple choice questions) is the demonstrated ability to write a grammatically correct and properly punctuated sentence.  It doesn't get much more basic.  However, now that the essay is optional, students least inclined to learn to write will eagerly skip it altogether.  Yet the students who have been groomed and propped up for entry to an outstanding four year college will continue to hammer away on their writing, and they will write that essay.  I see a widening gap here, not a leveling field.

When it comes to vocabulary, if high school students were reading Dickens, Melville, Conrad, Tolstoy, Hawthorne, Eliot, Faulkner, Joyce and Solzhenitsyn – as they should be – they would have no trouble whatsoever with arcane vocabulary on the SAT.   The trouble is not arcane vocabulary.  The trouble is the trash that passes for literature in our public schools.

If the new critical reading questions include primary source documents from US history, which is something the College Board promises, then bravo.   However, this would include The Federalist Papers, John Locke, and Thomas Paine.  It surprises me that anyone would consider this a leveling of the playing field.  Students studying AP US History will be pleased.  Students who already possess outstanding critical reading skills will be pleased.  Other students should be warned – these questions could be quite difficult.  Current critical reading scores have fallen behind scores from 35 years ago and we can thank technology for that.  Free technology.   For example, the free technology that provides cell phones to all students whose families receive any kind of welfare.  FACT: The more our kids text and tweet and fool around on phones, the lower those critical reading scores will be. 

From the college-board website:  Students will encounter challenging texts and informational graphics that pertain to issues and topics like these in the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section and the Math section. Questions will require them to read and comprehend texts, revise texts to be consistent with data presented in graphics, synthesize information presented through texts and graphics, and solve problems based in science and social science.
This sounds more like college-level analysis to me.  I love it, but it will NOT be easier than what is on the test now.

Finally, no one has said anything at all about these changes shortening the test.  If you are skipping the essay, then your test will be "about" 3 hours long.  For everyone else it will be "about" 3hours and 50 minutes long.  It is not shorter. 


Although the College Board has marketed this as something that will help impoverished students, this I do not believe.  I think these changes will keep the struggling students in the hole they are in, while it will be neutral (or helpful) to kids born into success and who have prepositioned assets in place from day one to ensure a trajectory to academic success.

The College Board certainly wants to capture more of the testing market.  They have been losing market share to the ACT.  So this new SAT is more like the ACT.   The College Board wants to make more money.  This I believe. 

David Coleman, President of The College Board, is in very deep on the Common Core Initiative and he cannot afford to have states pulling out of this preposterous homogenization project.  He said himself that the new SAT will be alignedto high school curriculum – a long, slow curve ball to keep states on the Common Core bus.  The new SAT is the Common Core’s pimp. Coleman has a side-business - If you are really curious about his actions as president of The College Board, you ought to read about the goals of this business of his. 

Anyone who thinks that our best interests or the best interests of those living in poverty are being served by David Coleman and The College Board needs some kind of reality triagecare. 

A steady decline over the past few decades in academic performance from the students in our country speaks all of the truth that any parent, student, or politician needs to hear.  There is no government program, no free access to test prep, no elimination of hard vocabulary words, and no hand out that can stem the tide.   The problem is foundational and organic and so must be the solutions.  These solutions will be born in the family unit, not a township, state, or federal unit.  It does not take a village to raise a child; it takes a village to betray a child.

Have you ever wondered why the explosion of free online courses and free test preparation hasn't had an impact on knowledge and test scores?  The more free stuff we throw at the problem, the further away we move from getting at the real culprit.  A student has to have the time and the desire to use the free help.  It's just that simple.

The US is loath to speak plain truth and we are all handicapped by this.  Alas, the truth will never buy votes.  The truth will never get the wheels of commerce turning.  Only fantasy does this and it does it so very well.

With the new SAT - The kids of the 1% are going to continue to do quite well.  Everyone else: you are in a world of doublespeak insanity.  Do not listen to policymakers.  Take the high road and choose to do hard stuff every day.  Then you can create your own path to excellence.
The new SAT is not doubleplusgood.  It’s doubleplusungood.


Notes:  Some of the terms used in this essay are from George Orwell’s, 1984, which may or may not be part of the Common Core, but it is part of my curriculum.

Newspeak terminology:
Duckspeak- a Newspeak term meaning literally to quack like a duck or to speak without thinking.
Doublethink- the act of ordinary people simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct.
Doubleplusgood– to say that someone or something is the best.
Doubleplusungood– to say that someone or something is the worst.
Ministry of Plenty – In 1984, The Ministry of Plenty is in control of Oceania's planned economy, where the central theme is that a poor, weak populace is easier to rule over than a wealthy, educated and powerful populace.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

That dang SAT ....

A friend of mine shared this article.  It appeared yesterday in The New Yorker.

It is a good read and I do admire this mom's pluck.  But, I think what she details in this article reveals more about the American "school-conditioned" thinking than it does about the SAT.

The author of the article sets out to conquer the SAT herself in order to motivate her kids.  It backfired.  My hat is off to her for even trying!  (I really have to meet this mom!)   I've been humbled multiple times by questions on this exam.

Couple of facts:  The SAT (while we all hate it) actually does a good job at predicting a student's success in college.  These words from Duke University sum it up well:  The SAT I measures verbal and mathematical skills that are important for college success; as such, it furnishes colleges with a relatively easy and inexpensive way to acquire information about students’ abilities in these areas. Colleges also respect the SAT I because it provides a yardstick with which to compare applicants from different high schools and communities.

So why are there SO MANY articles ridiculing the SAT?   The answer to this, I think, is simple statistics.  Look at the distribution of SAT scores for college bound students in 2013:

494 students scored a perfect 2400
6,600 students scored 2000
20,063 students scored 1510
20,394 students scored 1400
18,561 students scored 1300
10,360 students scored 1100

1,660,000 students took the test in 2013.  The average score was 1499.

When there are so many more students doing poorly on this test, there will be many more writers denouncing it openly.  I have never heard a student who scored high on this test doubting its virtues.  If you examine the drop-out and transfer rates at highly competitive colleges, it is remarkably low.  Most of those high-scoring students seem to be where they belong.   Even more interesting is the fact that transferring to less competitive colleges is most common in students whose SAT scores were borderline in the first place. We do not have to like these facts but we should not, as a culture, look for ways to make the test easier.

The problem does not begin with this test.  The problem begins with unrealistic expectations in parents and students.

For over a decade I have heard parents tell me that their kids go to "one of the best public schools in the state".   I  marvel at this statistical impossibility and the naivete that clings to it.

In fact, engaged parents who have used their public schools should not encounter any surprises when the time comes to have their kids take the SAT.  They should have looked up the average SAT scores for their local public schools and they should know what the predicted outcome is long before they are dealing with their own teenager's preparedness for this exam.  If a parent has high hopes for her student, then she should have this student on board the same cruise ship she is on before he begins high school.  There would be fewer surprises and less frustration and discord.

There is nothing wrong with the SAT, other than the fact that it is hard.  But, it does not test a student on the specific curriculum  used in her school.  It tests the student's ability to think.  This is why a good high school student can get a lousy score.  A kid who gets straight A's at Joe Jones High School is not necessarily going to do well on this reasoning test.

Will rich families with plenty of $$ to toss into SAT Prep get a better result?  Maybe.  But, remember - all the money in the world cannot purchase a kid's cooperation.  It cannot purchase a shared vision.  It cannot purchase determination in a kid.  But any parent can plant these seeds early on in a kid's life.

Academically successful families tend to spend LOTS of time, beginning in elementary school, bringing their kids into the fold - preparing them for academic leadership - molding them to stand out by committing to the very hard work of being better.  These kids start high school with clear goals, fully participating parents, and a family culture of excellence through tremendous focus and effort. These families are never caught off guard. These families do not rely solely on what their public school tells them. They send their kids to the public school -  but they lead their kids.  They do not abdicate to weary counselors or distracted administrators. Most importantly, the kids want the same things as their parents - they are on the same team.  THIS is the goal.

There are many things a parent can do, regardless of income:

1.  Engage early - don't be caught off guard.
2.  Have reasonable expectations.  Not every kid belongs in college.
3.  Do your own research on the SAT scores of the students in your local schools.
4.  Get your kid on your side - work as a team

Much can be learned by looking at the habits of families with academically successful children, but, of course, academic success is only one kind of success.



Regarding The College Board's announcement today (March 5th) on the big changes planned for the SAT beginning in Spring 2016 I the only one suspicious about the potential connection to the national conflict over Common Core Initiatives? The Common Core is an effort to standardize curriculum in all states in the union.  Individual states are fighting this.  David Coleman's side-business could be deeply affected if most states are not on board the common core wagon.  So, as president of College Board, he aligns the SAT to "curriculum"?  (Rather than have it remain the reasoning test that it has always been.)  Sounds like a chess move to me.  Mr. Coleman's side business is: :: About Us

That's right - only 24 hours after posting the above, the College Board announces sweeping changes!  David Coleman says it is to help the underprivileged.   What?  I doubt that.  Most of the math section must be done without a calculator, now.  How will this help, exactly?  Were calculators holding these kids back in some way?     I think the changes have more to do with David Coleman's other business ....his deep involvement with Common Core.

The College Board:  Magnanimous or Megalomaniacal ?  (You probably won't see these vocabulary words on the "new" SAT.   I think the latter - for what it's worth.)