Rewriting the SATs

The making and meaning of the new SATs by Will Larsen '17

“In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.”
—Malcolm Gladwell

I have my ten thousand hours in taking tests.

It’s not that at some point I counted all the tests I’ve taken, summed up every minute I ever spent bubbling answers on scantrons, and finally reached a quota. No, the principle described by the above quote, from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, is simple: it is only by investing the time and energy to practice something thoroughly and repeatedly that a person can get really good at it. This is applicable to learning any skill, manual or mental.

Over the course of thirteen years in Texas (public) schools, I have answered more multiple-choice questions than I have had schoolmates. One of my few concrete memories from the year I spent in kindergarten—along with making a “learning poster” about the plesiosaurus and watching as each of the Painted Lady caterpillars we had been taking care of spun a dusty chrysalis around itself—is taking my first standardized test. (It was the Stanford.) We had quizzes at the end of the week, tests at the end of the unit, big tests at the middle of the term, really big standardized tests at the end of the year. By the time I took the practice PSAT for the first time in my freshman year of high school, I was an old hand at taking tests. I knew how to identify problems that looked tricky, and come back to them once I’d earned the bulk of the points from questions that could be answered more quickly; I knew how to nap, leaning forward on my desk, when I was done early and didn’t have a book with me; I knew how to keep scores concealed from classmates, how to grimace a little when asked about a test without actually saying anything.

…all tests had teeth, but this one had wings and talons, too

The PSAT, however, began to hint that tests could have an even greater significance than I was used to giving them. Geometry tests determined whether or not I passed the class. TAKS tests determined whether or not I passed the ninth grade. The PSAT’s big brother, the SAT, lurking not too far around the corner, determined whether or not I went to college. This was a genuinely scary idea for me and my ilk—all tests had teeth, but this one had wings and talons, too. It would be wrong to say that I avidly tore through test-prep material, studying diligently with the sole goal of bringing my score as close to 2400 as I possibly could, but it would be further from the truth to say my attitude toward the SAT was ever nonchalant. My scores on practice PSATs were almost—but not quite—promising, so before I took the PSAT in my junior year to try and qualify for a National Merit Scholarship, I enrolled in a Princeton Review prep course. For four days, over two consecutive weekends, I went and sat with other uncertain students, answering multiple-choice questions and then analyzing the correct way to have done so. Nothing of what we learned was content. No revolutionary new concepts were introduced, no vocabulary words or mathematical theorems were reevaluated; rather, we reviewed the test’s structure, the ways in which questions were worded, the most efficient order in which to answer all of the questions about each prose passage. In keeping with the idea of earning expertise through hours, we took two practice SATs for the course, one on our own time and the other in class.

Just after I took the PSAT for real, in October of my junior year, I went to my first College Board conference. I was part of the Advisory Panel on Student Concerns, now the Advisory Panel on Student Opportunities (APSO). APSO comprises sixteen students, from the junior year of high school to the second year out of high school, who hail from all six of the College Board’s membership regions and have education experiences that are particularly interesting and relevant to the Board; we serve as a focus group to provide real students’ feedback in response to any of various projects within the College Board. I was from the Southwestern region, and attended a public high school where nearly all of the classes were pre-AP and AP—the exams for which were funded by our district. I had a unique perspective to offer and, indeed, I was surprised to find that both the teachers attending the conference and the College Board professionals who had small-group sessions with APSO seemed to value our experiences and opinions, oftentimes they even took detailed notes.

I was being initiated into some of the College Board’s inner workings, and the view was fascinating. I began to see the fallacy in the conception expressed (only somewhat jokingly) by some of my classmates that the College Board was a monster which fed on their money and conspired as best it could to destroy their dreams. In one conference I’d learned that APSO’s structure actually mimics the College Board’s in many ways: the Board is a non-profit made up of unpaid delegates—educators, primarily high school counselors and college admissions reps—from its member institutions who are elected by region into any of a number of committees. They volunteer their time and experiences trying to improve College Board products and services with the goal, in effect, of making their own jobs easier and more effective. Their goals, I realized, were more or less aligned with my own. This epiphany did not in itself prepare me for the test, but it did begin to palliate my fears that the SAT, perhaps the most important test of my life, was also “out to get me”—an impressive feat given the fact that my high school was preparing to administer the test to my class the coming January.

When that January day came at last for me to take the SAT, the stars aligned. It was dusky-dark and rainy all day long, but by early afternoon the test was over, and I felt inexplicably good about it. I’d been expecting for months that I would get a sufficiently high-ish score—I had, after all, been trained since childhood for this ordeal—but somehow in my gut I sensed that I had performed exceptionally well in this one administration of this particular test. I tried to minimize my reliance on what instinct was telling me. I didn’t want to build myself up just to fall that much harder when our scores were reported in March.

I was right, though. Elephants could sense when a tsunami was approaching and move into the mountains, monarch butterflies could navigate a journey over thousands of miles that had not been traveled by any insects since their great-great-grandparents, and I could smell the three-day-old tracks of test results through gusting wind and driving snow. I had, indeed, performed marvelously, and to what end? My peers were frustrated with me and with themselves; I was caught on a tightrope tied between the pillars of pride and mortification. I was not going to be taking the test again, while some of them were going to have to retake it in order to, hopefully, bring their scores up, fearing that otherwise their colleges of choice would reject their applications after nothing more than a cursory glance at their test results. I was taken aback. I had scored higher than several of the students who regularly helped me stay caught up in our pre-calculus and computer science courses, higher than had many of my senior role models who were just then starting to receive admissions decisions. I had to process a lot of conflicting information, and suddenly my value as measured by the test was no longer my most pressing question—the test’s value as a means of measurement was.

I was grateful, certainly, to have a solid score on a test that seemed to matter so much, but by the beginning of my senior year I started to realize, with alarm, that testing was probably my single best-developed skill. I had begun applying to colleges with a remarkably unclear idea of what I wanted from any of them; there were no careers or majors in taking tests, and I was less and less certain that I’d have been interested if there were. It was in October 2012, during this mid-adolescence crisis, that I attended my third APSO meeting and met David Coleman, the new, incoming president of the College Board. Coleman, who had studied at Yale, Oxford, and Cambridge, and who had already spent a good deal of his life working to improve education in the U.S., including work on the Common Core, stated bluntly that his biggest goals included making the SAT less “tricky” in its format—more relevant to core skills already being taught in schools nationwide rather than expensive prep courses—as well as making SAT and AP tests and score reports more widely available to all students with fee waivers wherever possible, restructuring the College Board itself, and finding ways to make it clear that the test-maker was not the villainous entity that some of my classmates envisioned. The year after I first met him (and saw his brightly patterned socks), he was listed by Time as one of the 100 most influential people in the world for 2013.

Coleman soon made good on his promise to reorganize the Board, something which APSO’s constituents noticed even in our infrequent conference visits, and not long after he announced the re-working of the SAT. The changes mentioned seemed congruent with the vision he had already shared; they included cutting out sections in which students must choose the best of a list of arcane, florid vocabulary words (knowledge of which is neither deemed exigent in high school nor saliently sought-after by colleges) and wording questions in ways that would not require decipherment in addition to content knowledge. This latter complaint is especially relevant to math questions: instead of “It takes twelve minutes to cut a log into four pieces; how long would it take to cut an identical log into six pieces instead?” one could simply give an equation to be solved—if, that is, that algebra is what’s being tested, and not the ability to pull numbers from a word problem. And just this year, Coleman announced that the College Board and Khan Academy will join forces to provide online prep courses for the revised SAT—free of charge—and that fee waivers will be available to more student than ever before.

I was being initiated into some of the College Board’s inner workings, and the view was fascinating

It is clear that Coleman understands students, colleges, and the College Board are all butting their respective heads against different facets of the same problem. It’s extremely tough to reconcile the sheer volume of students applying to institutions of higher learning with the necessity of seeing each person in that multitude as an individual, with a complex collection of assets. There is no single, simple way of representing a student’s level of qualification that can be applied uniformly and fairly to many millions of people each year—that’s why (most) colleges ask applicants to submit resumés, supplemental essays, and interviews instead of just numbered grades and test scores. My experiences during the college application process itself are, I think, a large part of what led me to Bennington: I realized while answering question after question about myself and my hopes for the future that I’d like to try to rack up ten thousand hours in areas other than taking tests, to become an expert at creating my own works.

Even if we acknowledge that the SAT and other comparable assessments should not be (and hopefully are not) admissions trump cards, but should instead be restricted to measuring candidates’ proficiency in certain fairly standard academic areas, these tests are bound by matters of efficiency and scale to an inevitable degree of simplicity. Nonetheless, students—all students, regardless of what neighborhood they come from or what their parents do for a living—should be able to use the SAT to prove competency in one area without having to demonstrate expertise in the entirely separate specialization of test-taking, and with stakes as high as college entrance, the test should measure the knowledge that colleges truly need to know about, knowledge that truly prepared students will have gained already.