The Use and Abuse of the SAT

This post is a collaboration between myself and James Murphy. James Murphy, right, is the director of tutoring for the Princeton Review in New England and a freelance writer with almost two decades of experience getting students ready for the SAT.

Are New York City’s teachers as smart as their students? John Sexton, the ex-president of New York University, thinks not.  During a talk he gave on the future of American universities at the Library of Congress last week, he claimed that in the past five years, New York City public schools have been hiring “teachers that have lower SAT scores than the students you are graduating. That’s a ticket for failure, because you’re hiring from the bottom half of the existing class.”

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SAT Disambiguation – Real World Math Problems

Real world CB definitionSince the announced changes to the SAT in March 2014, College Board officials have been on the world tour of high schools and education conferences trying to wow educators with their shiny new toy, the 15th iteration of the SAT. They’ve published exhaustive treatises on the research and specifications behind the changes, hosted dozens of gatherings and yet have provided no real information for the students who will actually take the test. These kids have been left to decode marketing-speak extolling the virtues of a test “more aligned with school work” and “based on a foundation of research.” Newspapers have picked up on the College Board’s talking points and parroted them without providing clarification, further confusing families and adding to the anxiety surrounding an already fraught time. So this leaves little ole me with the herculean task of laying plain that which has been obfuscated. I’ve been trying to work through each of the “8 Key Changes” and translate them into laymen’s terms so that they are more easily digested. Previously, I analyzed “Founding Documents and the Great Global Conversation“. As with that analysis, here I’ll also seek to answer these three key questions:

  1. What does this really mean?
  2. What level of impact will this change have for test takers?
  3. Is this really a change or is it simply a redistribution of the same ole same?

So, let’s do this thing!

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SAT Disambiguation – Founding Documents and the Great Global Conversation

8 key changes pigIn 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?”.

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Stanford shows they’re not so smart after all

malala-500x375cMaking the rounds in the college world this week is the story of Stanford University’s “demand”* that college applicant Malala Yousafzai take the SAT. Correction, that’s Noble Laureate, educational activist, assassination attempt survivor, and still “kicking ass and taking names” while advocating for education for women, 18-year-old Malala Yousafzai. Stanford University, in their apparent quest for additional bad press, has let the story of Ms Yousafzai’s desire to apply to the college become one of a “demand” for a test that many see as worthless and not indicative of any of the true characteristics of college bound students. It’s stunning to me that this university, with what I assume is a million dollar team of PR professionals, would let this potentially huge PR win become another example of the evil that colleges do in their quest for rankings and their love of test scores.

Had Stanford’s team been on the ball this could have been an amazing PR win for them. But alas I think the people working there are not as bright as many of the undergraduates they seek to enroll.  However, because I’m a benevolent critic, I’m going to give Stanford a few suggestions free of charge as to how they should have handled this situation. These 3 suggestions would let Stanford achieve their goals of having high SAT rankings and good PR while at the same time doing the right thing for Ms Yousafzai.

 

Suggestion 1: Amend Admission Policy

To solve any potential conflicts Stanford could have amended their admission policy and/or practice to allow for admitting Ms Yousafzai without scores. It would have been a win to say she was so amazing she inspired change in the institutions policies. Here is one suggested policy amendment, which allows for them to continue to be elitist a meritocracy and yet have Ms Yousafzai qualify:

 

Multi-facited Assessment of Latent Academic Laurels for Admission (any acronym created by this title is completely coincidental and unrelated to the intent of the program)

Effective immediately, Stanford University, in order to increase access to the university and attract diverse students with not only amazing academic records but also stellar political and societal contributions will evaluated under the Multi-facited Assessment of Latent Academic Laurels for Admission program. This process will allow for the admissions committee to fairly compare the political and societal contributions of unique candidates to the academic records of traditional applicants. This process will maintain the high standards of the university while allowing an open holistic review of factors that fall outside of the traditional consideration factors. Those applicants who qualify for the Multi-facited evaluation program will display one or more of the following characteristics:

1.       Surviving an assassination attempt while advocating for educational equality

2.       Wining a globally recognized award for societal contributions

3.       Being so bad-ass that a fundamentalist pseudo-religious junta wants to assassinate you

4.       Founding of education institutions to serve severely under-served groups

5.       Starting a non-profit organization

6.       Becoming the global face of any social impact movement

7.       Meeting with one or more world leader

8.       Holding single name status (e.g. Oprah, Pele, Madonna, Shakespeare, Jesus, Michael, Michael)

9.       Achieving top scores on the equivalent of the SAT in any other country (e.g. Gaokao exam in China, or GCSEs in the U.K.)

10.   Given interviews with Diana Sawyer or Jon Stewart

11.   Publish an autobiography

12.   David Beckham or Bono gives you an award

13.   Are featured on the cover of a global news magazine (e.g. Time) as one of 100 most influential people

14.   Getting a multi-national corporation to provide for your family during your convalescence

15.   Accomplishing any of 2 or more of the above before legally allowed to consume alcohol on campus

 

Suggestion 2: Drop the Mic

If a change in policy was too much Stanford could have simply done a mic drop. Make a statement that leaves no questions about her ability and the reason she should be admitted bypassing the normal admissions process. This would also have given them the additional benefit of laying claim to her (even though she hasn’t actually applied yet). Since clearly Stanford’s PR department needs help, here is a press release I’ve prepared for them:

 

For Immediate Release

“We, the admission committee of Stanford University, have decided to extend an offer admission to Ms Malala Yousafzai. The entire university looks forward to her presence on campus and as part of our community.

 

In order to facilitate the process for Ms Yousafzai, we will allow her speech in front of the UN (which we’ve learned she wrote herself) to supplant her application essays. Because we understand she likely has speaking engagements in front of other universities, to which she is not applying, on the dates of the SAT and ACT, we’ll accept her previous amazing standardized test scores in lieu of additional standardized tests scores. At this point additional test scores would be redundant and add little additional evaluative value and would actually unnecessarily burden not only Ms Yousafzai but also the women she has opened a school to serve and the girls around the world she is mentoring and leading. Finally, we’d like to acknowledge the honor we feel at being Ms Yousafzai’s choice for higher education. We have had several Nobel Laureate alumnus but this will be a first for us to admit a winner of the award. We look forward to learning as much from her as she will learn from us.

 

Mic. Dropped. Go ahead and question the validity of her admissions after that statement. I dare you.

 

Suggestion 3: R. Kelly Strategy – Keep it in the closet

If Stanford had wanted to cover their proverbial asses, they could have easily contacted Ms Yousafzai privately and kept the entire thing out of the media until she was enrolled. Given that SAT scores are not public record, if Ms Yousafzai didn’t take the test no one need ever know. If her scores were bad that could easily stay between her and Stanford (and the College Board). Had I been in charge of the university admission’s committee as soon as word came in that she was interested it would have been logical for the team to contact her quietly and evaluate her candidacy. I’d have flow my international admissions dean to her house to review her records at her home. If she needed SAT scores they could have administered a practice test on the spot for a quick private result before even thinking about asking her to take the real thing. Or even better just forget the whole thing and go ahead and admit her. Much like recruited athletes are admitted with lower scores and bypassing much of the typical process they could have rolled out the silent behind the scenes process and had her on campus before anyone was the wiser. Who among us would even blink when fall of 2016 rolls around and we see a picture of Ms Yousafzai walking the Stanford campus? Who would say, “I wonder what her SAT scores are?”

 

But let this be a lesson to universities on how to handle PR on prominent (non-athlete) applicants. The key is getting out your own narrative ahead of the internet and social media. Otherwise, things like this happen:

  • Malala Wants To Go To Stanford, But First She’ll Need To Take The SATs via Forbes
  • Should a Nobel laureate be required to take the SATs? via YahooNews
  •  Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Peace Prize not a ticket to Stanford University via India Today
  • Dear Malala Yousafzai, your Nobel Prize is not your ticket to Stanford via Tribune blogs
  • Malala Yousafzai still has to take the SAT, just like every other Stanford applicant via Hello Giggles

 

*Oddly not a single story cited an official Stanford statement and my googling skills were not up to the task. If you find the an official Stanford statement please drop it in the comments.
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Skills, Skills, Skills – Do you have those testing skills?

Skills skills skillsWhile hate-reading some articles posted online over the weekend, I ended up looking on College Board’s website for a reference link to share with one of my twitter buddies and lo and behold I found this awesome new College Board tagline. Apparently College Board has decided that to help convince everyone that the redesigned SAT tests the skills that students have developed in high school they are going to use “Skill” as often as they can and in as many contexts as they can come up with. Here are a few more samples:

Skills skills skills 3

Skills skills skills 2

 

This awesomely bad use of the word immediately reminded me of Destiny’s Child’s hit Bills Bills Bills. So inspired by lack of sleep and a sick sense of humor I decided to pen College Board’s new theme song. I highly recommend that they play it every time David Coleman comes on stage.

Before I share with you the awesomeness of my first musical masterpiece, let me share with you a contest.

 

Music Skills to pay the SAT Prep Bills

The challenge is to create the best Skills, Skills, Skills song.  The best submission of a rendition of a college or SAT themed Skills Skills Skills will receive a free SAT prep class for a school or non-profit organization of their choice* (limitations apply).  I’ll actually choose two winning submissions.

Deadline to submit is November 15, winner will be announced here and on twitter (akilbello) on November 20.

Destiny’s Child – Bills Bills Bills

And now, without further ado:

 

Skills Skills, Skills

by Ken-ye Test (aka Akil Bello)

At first this started about school
Testing for college and for scholarships
But now, you’re getting comfortable
Ain’t scorin’ like you used to score
You’re slowly making me learn ya things your high school should be handling
And now I’ve given you the Core (cooooorrree)
Teaching you thinking and to read a doc or graph
And you have the audacity to even come and say you’re ready
Ask to go to university or even get a job from me

You average, good for nothing type of tester
Oh woe is me, these scores just keep on getting lesser
They’re fallin’, the new test better help me out
Instead of ACT who don’t get what rigor is all about

Can you show me those algebra skills
Can you do my linear drills
Can you show me those Common Core skills
If you did then maybe we could chill
I don’t think you do
So, you and college are through

(repeat chorus)

Now you’ve been freakin’ out ’bout words (wooords)
Blamin’ my lexicon, sayin’ learning word’s insane
Haven’t seen a college text
But you’re sure the words don’t count
Running to the ACT
Pretending they’re not doin’ it too

And then you learn no grammar (grammar)
Using singular when it should be plural instead
When the essay comes, all of a sudden you have no opinion
Don’t know where these thoughts came from
But MLK shows up is the only leader you’ve ever heard from

You average, good for nothing type of tester
Oh woe is me, these scores just keep on getting lesser
They’re fallin’, the new test better help me out
Instead of ACT who don’t get what rigor is all about

Can you show me those algebra skills

Can you do my linear drills
Can you show me those Common Core skills
If you did then maybe we could chill
I don’t think you do
So, you and college are through

Can you show me those algebra skills

Can you do my linear drills
Can you show me those Common Core skills
If you did then maybe we could chill
I don’t think you do
The ACT’s hard too.

You average, good for nothing type of tester
Oh woe is me, these scores just keep on getting lesser
You average, good for nothing type of tester
Oh woe is me, these scores just keep on getting lesser
You average, good for nothing type of tester
Oh woe is me, these scores just keep on getting lesser
You average, good for nothing type of tester
Oh woe is me, these scores just keep on getting lesser
They’re fallin’, the new test better help me out
Instead of ACT who don’t get what rigor is all about

Can you show me those algebra skills
Can you do my linear drills
Can you show me those Common Core skills
If you did then maybe we could chill
I don’t think you do
So, you and college are through

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Did Khan Pull Out His Disruptor?

Over the last few days, I’ve been texted, tweeted, gchatted, emailed and called about the release of College Board’s/Khan Academy’s SAT prep resources. I’ve been forwarded article, after article, after article, about the playing field leveling that College Board is touting its partnership with Khan Academy will bring.  I’ve been asked for my opinion and thoughts on Khan’s resources and the implications for my job and industry. So here it is, my unfiltered (mostly) thoughts on Khan Academy “Official SAT Practice.”

No self-respecting child of the 80’s and sci-fi fan should ever speak of Khan without a passing reference to Star Trek.

 

The partnering of Khan Academy and College Board is certainly a significant step for low income students. The key benefits of Khan’s SAT prep are:

  1. Greater opportunity and access for free – This relationship creates the opportunity for low income students to have reliable free practice, which until now has not been easily found. Students, parents, teachers, and counselors now know immediately where they can send a student to find practice tools for the SAT.
  1. High quality practice questions – Khan’s practice questions will be high quality because their relationship with the College Board will give KA a resource to verify that accuracy and appropriateness of their questions. Prior to this relationship the validity of free online SAT practice materials was questionable at best. (I’ve seen some terrible practice SAT materials both in stores and online, in fact most of the free SAT resources online are terrible.)
  1. Ease of use and access – Setting up and using KA’s site is relatively painless and in this day and age most students have probably already accessed it at some point. This means by adding SAT practice tools, they are simply improving an already useful tool. This is great for students.
  1. Integration with College Board results - In the fall there are plans to integrate further with College Board test results. PSAT and SAT test-takers will be able to add their test results to their KA accounts and get analysis and feedback. This again is great since it allows a one-stop shopping for information and analysis.
  1. Boys and Girls Clubs of America - The most interesting and least clear part of the College Board’s venture into test prep is the partnership not with Khan Academy but with the Boys and Girls Club. Reports are spotty but have indicated everything from College Board providing support setting up computer labs to College Board putting tutors in the Boys and Girls Clubs to provide actual teaching. If there is large scale free instruction supported by the College Board that will be truly interesting and helpful for low income students.
  1. Ongoing improvement - It seems that KA has an active team of professionals working to improve the product. This is amazing and bodes well because I’m anticipating that the College Board hasn’t yet finished tinkering with the SAT (and won’t finish until May 2016).

So while clearly there are great potential benefits to the advent of KA’s SAT tools, it’s also important to be aware of the limitations. Most of the articles I’ve seen about KA have ignored completely or paid scant attention to the potential problems with KA. These articles are touting Khan as the grand equalizer of economically and racially aligned score discrepancies on the SAT.  It’s not. Khan is a tool. It’s a nice, well-designed free tool. And like any tool it will only be as good as those using it. I don’t object to the existence of KA SAT tools (in fact I’m excited by them), my concern is about the impact of touting it as a solution to inequalities. Let’s explore some of the key limitations with KA:

 

  1. Access is not effectiveness – Khan provides OPPORTUNITY to practice. It’s ACCESS to materials. But just because you are provided access and opportunity that does not mean it will be used and if it’s not used then no matter how good it is there will be no effect or leveling of the playing field. One of my concerns about Khan’s effectiveness is about access (since there are lots of studies saying low income students do not have the same internet access or solely access the web via mobile). Living Without Broadband In 2015: How 55 Million Americans Find Jobs, Study, Watch YouTube
  1. Access is not engagement- Another of my concerns is engagement. Logging on to KA periodically when you have a sticky math problem in homework is very different from the consistent practice generally necessary to improve SAT scores. Will students be engaged enough to use the site? Historically, College Board’s prep tools have only been mildly used (I’ve been told by districts that usage of College Board’s SAT Online Course which comes free with most SAT School Day contracts is less than 10% as is use of the My College Quickstart site that is included for every PSAT test taker). Are these videos enough to keep student engaged? Pew Research: U.S. Smartphone Use in 2015
  1. Free access is free for everyone – No matter how great Khan is at providing resources for low income students, high income students will also be able to access those resources to supplement their high priced tutoring programs. Any claims that this tool will minimize the score differentials overlooks that KA tools are available to all regardless of how much the family makes.
  1. Academic preparation is not test preparation - There is a big difference between academic learning and preparing specifically for a test. College Board and Khan provide more of the academic learning (they’ve actually said so). They are focused on more academic approaches. Here is an interesting comparison by Stacey Howe-Lott of Stellar Scores on how a test prep person might do a question vs how an academic might do the same question.
  1. Testing is not the same – All the great practice in the world is generally not sufficient to replicate the experience of take a proctored exam in a crowded room with other kids sniffling and tapping and stressing. Khan will never be able to truly simulate the experience of taking the test.

 

So what’s the upshot of all of this? 

While Khan is shaping up to be a great resource it’s important to not get too enamored with the potential of the shiny new toy. Khan will help those who have had no access to quality free resources, but it will probably not level a playing field that is slanted at every level of education starting in utero and culminating in the workplace.  Additionally Khan has been around for years delivering lessons for everything from algebra to physics and yet somehow the teaching industry has not been disrupted, it’s unlikely this will upend the test prep industry.

 

The keys for taking advantage of Khan will be to start using it early and over a sustained period of time to build academic skills and gain comfort with the material on the SAT. If you don’t make the gains you want or have very little time, then it might make sense to look into actual test preparation options.

 

What’s your thoughts ? What did I miss? What articles or research do I need to read or link to? Please put it in the comments!


A couple of articles that get it right

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