In my continuing effort to understand the rhetoric behind and disambiguate the marketing jargon used to describe the redesigned SAT (henceforth referred to as SAT version 15 or SAT v15.0), today I’ll explore what the College Board means by Founding Documents and the Great Global Conversation. This high-highfalutin and important sounding language has been bandied about a great deal in order to support the notion that this latest redesign of the SAT has made a radical departure from the ghosts of SATs past. It’s also been held up as the shining example of SAT v15.0 testing “what really matters” to college and career readiness and only things that are “worthy of close attention”. But each time I hear the term it makes me ask “what does Founding Documents really mean?”, “how does this really impact students?”, and “is it a real change to the test?”.
First, let’s try to suss out what Founding Documents and the Great Global Conversation (FD/GGC) actually means. On page 47 ofTest Specifications for the Redesigned SAT, College Board stated
History/social studies selections include portions of U.S.-based founding documents and texts in the Great Global Conversation — engaging, often historically and culturally important works grappling with issues at the heart of civic and political life — and explorations of topics in the social sciences, including anthropology, communication studies, economics, education, human geography, law, linguistics, political science, psychology, and sociology (and their subfields).
In the College Board’s Teacher Implementation Guide they offer the following polished word salad:
But of course the proof will be in the proverbial pudding. So lets take a look at the passage summaries from all official SAT practice sources I could scrounge up. I’ve identified the passages I think would qualify as FD/GGC:
Test Specifications document – This passage is adapted from a speech delivered by Congresswoman Barbara Jordan of Texas on July 25, 1974, as a member of the Judiciary Committee of the United States House of Representatives. In the passage, Jordan discusses how and when a United States president may be impeached, or charged with serious offenses, while in office. Jordan’s speech was delivered in the context of impeachment hearings against then president Richard M. Nixon.
SAT Official Practice 1 – Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas, in which Virginia Woolf considers the situation of women in English Society.
SAT Official Practice 2 – This passage is adapted from Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s address to the 1869 Woman Suffrage Convention in Washington, DC.
SAT Official Practice 3 – Passage 1 is adapted from Talleyrand et al., Report on Public Instruction. Originally published in 1791. Passage 2 is adapted from Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Originally published in 1792. Talleyrand was a French diplomat; the Report was a plan for national education. Wollstonecraft, a British novelist and political writer, wrote Vindication in response to Talleyrand.
SAT Official Practice 4 – Passage 1 is adapted from Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Originally published in 1790. Passage 2 is adapted from Thomas Paine, Rights of Man. Originally published in 1791.
October 2015 PSAT – While I don’t have an official summary of the passage included on this test, the October 2015 PSAT sparked a ton of tweets and social media mentions of Frederick Douglass’ 1852 4th of July speech, indicating that that speech was excerpted.
So as near as I can tell from a close reading of the descriptions and the samples I have, a passage that qualifies as FD/GGC must meet the following standards:
1. Historic – passage must have a broad historic viewpoint or assessment of impact
2. Moralistic – passage spouses a highly moralistic loving of and impact on mankind
3. U.S. or World – passage must be about the U.S. or the World
Based on these criteria, it seems that almost any sort of historical exploration of freedom, equality, government, and mankind could be called FD/GGC.
This makes it seem that the constant citing of examples such as the Declaration of Independence is intentionally overblown. The mentioning of U.S. founding documents is also misleading when the included passage might be sourced from the “global conversation.” The College Board does not explicitly say that it will actually include the Constitution or Bill of Rights but it does seems to be doing everything it can to encourage the belief that a particular and narrow set of documents will be the source of many or most SAT reading passages, which seems designed to teach lessons in double talk to politicians around the world.
If we look a little deeper at what this actually means in practice you’ll note that College Board states that ONE passage will be drawn from FD/GGC.
“On each assessment, one passage will be drawn from a U.S. founding document (a text such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or the Bill of Rights) or a text that is part of the Great Global Conversation (a text such as one by Lincoln or King, or by an author from outside the United States writing on a topic such as freedom, justice, or liberty).”
SAT v15.0 will have 52 questions based on 4 single passages and 1 paired passage. This means that there will be a total of 6 passages of which at most 1 will be drawn from FD/GGC. At approximately 16% of the reading in the reading section, FD/GGC represents a pathetically small portion of the test on which the College Board is putting such a huge focus. Why is a component that is 1/6 of 1/3 of the exam cited as one of the “8 key changes?”
Again I ask “is this all this like much ado about nothing?” is this not College Board putting lipstick on their SAT pig?
For most students who have read historical documents (and I’d bet 99% of high school students have) they have had some exposure to the type of writing that will appear on ONE of the passages on SAT v15.0. This “key change” will not alter how well they will do on the test or how prepared a test takers is for college. Instead of focusing on the topic of the passage I wish College Board had pointed out the real change in the reading section is the increased textual complexity of the passages overall (But that’s a post for another day.). Not only is College Board not focusing on telling us the things that would helps students more but they are doling out sage advice like this:
Here are a few other interesting reads:
The Critical Reader SAT guru Erica Meltzer blog analyzes and discusses the connection between SAT v15.0, common core, AP US History, etc
Applerouth Tutoring’s early look at the redesigned SAT has a good section on the reading passages. I’m not sure I agree with the overall contention that the test is “harder” (and it was an early assessment before the full sample tests were out) but its a good read.
Visual Thesaurus’s take on the textual complexity and vocabulary changes to the new SAT. While they’re not SAT experts this analysis is worth a read.