SAT steals time from real learning

Op Ed   By Rick Breault Monday, August 31, 2009 The most troubling thing about the recent…

Georgia (Aug 31, 2009) — Op Ed


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By Rick Breault

Monday, August 31, 2009

The most troubling thing about the recent drop in SAT scores is not that the scores fell but that our state’s education leaders appear to be so uninformed about the nature of testing. Instead of declaring that action is needed and debating over which test to take, they should be asking whether the SAT or ACT should be required at all.
The test is being used inappropriately, yet the state’s response appears to be a commitment to continue in an inappropriate direction, except more diligently. Equally disappointing was the AJC’s failure to help readers put the scores in context.
Statistically, a drop of a few points is relatively meaningless. Even a larger drop can be the result of getting just a few more questions wrong. It does not indicate any profound decrease in what young people know. Re-taking the tests and test prep programs are at times effective simply because the test-taker learns how to “game” the test.
Familiarity and tricks of the trade are what help. Time devoted to SAT preparation in schools is time taken away from real teaching and meaningful learning. Even if scores do increase, all that has been shown is that students were able to temporarily recall information relevant to one specific test. That is training, not authentic learning. I can be “trained” to pass a test of medical vocabulary. You would not want me as your surgeon.
A preoccupation with comparing scores from year to year or decade to decade is also misguided and misleading. First, you need to take into consideration that the SAT is more difficult now than it was in the past. Also, test scores vary from region to region based on emphasis, income, or culture.
In fact, some researchers have noted that the single best predictor of SAT scores is not a rigorous curriculum or instructional time, but a student’s address. Comparisons over time are also complicated by how the interpreter uses the statistics, the points of comparison that are used and what the interpreter leaves out of the story.
One of the most important things to consider is that the SAT was never intended as a measure of achievement or content knowledge and was not meant to be aligned to any given curriculum. It was intended as a measure of potential success in college and a tentative one at that — since high school grade-point average is probably a better predictor.
In fact, the purpose of the test has become obscured to the point of meaninglessness. It is simply a test one must take. The publishers of the SAT know this, but the testing industry has created a multimillion-dollar industry on the backs of our children and uninformed legislators and business leaders who cry for accountability.
If there was ever a golden age of high SAT scores (and research does not support that there was) it was because only a select group of students took the test — those who were college-bound during a period when relatively few students attended college.
To require increasing numbers of students to take the test is at best folly and a setup for failure — a frequent blunder among education policy-makers — and at worst intellectually dishonest.
There is emerging evidence of a drop in the absolute number of students scoring at the very highest levels of the SAT. What that might signal is that by forcing all students into advanced courses that are meant for relatively few, we might be hurting both those who really need the courses and those who could benefit more from other course work.
Finally, the notion that a test must be taken and that the scores matter is seldom questioned. However, that notion is questionable. While not yet widespread, more and more universities are either getting rid of or making optional the use of test scores in admissions. When students are taking the test multiple times over several years, and hiring SAT coaches, high scores are more an indication of persistence, pressure and disposable income than academic ability.
It is equally questionable and misleading to encourage all students to take the test based on the argument that all students should be prepared for college. Yes, college helps your future earning potential and has other less tangible benefits. But after many years of college teaching, I challenge the notion that all young people are suited for and should attend college. Even in pure job market terms, Department of Labor projections indicate that the majority of jobs in the future will not require a four-year college degree. We might be better off directing our efforts toward increasing the dignity of all work and striving toward providing a living wage, regardless of your job.
Education leaders need to step back from quick fixes and conciliatory posturing and apologies and take time to look at how all of the state’s educational woes might be related.
If we have low scores, high dropout rates, rising discipline problems, difficulty in recruiting and retaining teachers, you need to look at more fundamental questions.
How do we create meaningful learning experiences instead of mind-numbing scripted teaching that treats teachers as incompetents and trains students as you would your pet?
Should we restore autonomy to local districts to address local situations with a local curriculum instead of rushing toward a national, one-size-fits-all model?
What might happen to dropout rates if we provided a diversified educational experience that respects students who are not college-bound?
And, as has become painfully clear in recent months, can we ever say with any integrity that we value our children’s education when we steadfastly refuse to raise the taxes to pay for it? Or when we refuse to require corporations to help pay for the educated workers they say they need by paying their taxes instead of playing one state or community against another in order to be freed of that responsibility?
Rick Breault is an associate professor of elementary and early childhood education at Kennesaw State University.



A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers more than 150 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its approximately 41,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia and the third-largest university in the state. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the region and from 92 countries across the globe. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status, and one of the 50 largest public institutions in the country. For more information, visit