Will The SAT Overhaul Help Achieve Equity?

by Guest Blogger
April 24th, 2014

By Burnie Bond

Burnie Bond is the director of programs at the Albert Shanker Institute. This post originally appeared on the Shanker Blog on April 22, 2014.

The College Board, the organization behind the SAT, acknowledges that historically its tests have been biased in favor of the children of wealthy, well-educated elites—those who live in the best zip codes, are surrounded by books, go to the best-regarded schools (both public and private), enjoy summer enrichment programs, and can avail themselves of as much tutoring and SAT test-prep coaching as they need. That’s why, early last month, College Board president David Coleman announced that the SAT would undergo significant changes, with the aim of making it more fair and equitable for disadvantaged students.

Among the key changes, which are expected to take effect in 2016, are: the democratization of access to test-prep courses (by trying to make them less necessary and entering into an agreement with the Khan Academy to offer free, online practice problems*); ensuring that every exam includes a reading passage from one of the nation’s “founding documents,” such as the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights, or from one of the important discussions of such texts, such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail”; and replacing “arcane ‘SAT words’ (‘depreciatory,’ ‘membranous’),” with words that are more “commonly used in college courses, such as ‘synthesis’ and ‘empirical.’” (See here.)

Will this help? Well, maybe, but the SAT’s long heldbut always elusive—mission to help identify and reward merit, rather than just privilege, will only be met insofar as its creators can be sure that all students have had an equal opportunity to learn these particular vocabulary words and have read these particular “founding documents” and texts. That is, it comes down to a question of curriculum.

Curriculum and Equity

The connection between curriculum and equity first occurred to me when I was eight years old (though obviously not in those exact terms). For some reason, my school decided that all third graders needed to have an IQ test. I was sick that day, so one school holiday I found myself filling in bubbles alone in a classroom with Mrs. Beagles, the school’s assistant principal.

All was well until I got to one particular question. Since the test designers couldn’t be sure we could read well, many of the questions were in picture form. This one included a series of line drawings. As I recall, the first was a drawing of a boy in a ski jacket standing on a beach; the second showed a boy in swim trunks and a beach ball standing in the snow near a snowman; the third had the same swim-trunked, beach ball kid standing in sand near a big cactus; and the fourth had the ski jacket boy standing near the snowman. The question was: Which one didn’t belong?

Although I knew the “right” answer, I found myself wondering how they could just assume that I should. Having never left the tropical island of St. Croix, I had not yet been in winter or seen snow or a snowman. And, although some cactus varieties could be found out on the island’s East End, we had no real desert either. Our textbooks had not yet covered the relevant units on physical geography, and my book-loving father had only allowed a television into our house about six months beforehand. I then started wondering how many of my classmates might have thought that the ski jacket was some elaborate water flotation outfit, and how many would have been confused because we all regularly swam at East End beaches with cacti in plain sight. For that matter, what about kids on the mainland who grew up in cities or in the Midwest and who had never been to a beach or seen a desert?

Irate over the unfairness of it all, I complained to Mrs. Beagles, who replied, “Just do the best that you can,” and returned to grading papers.

I found myself thinking about this episode as I read a very interesting 2012 paper by Santelices and Wilson, whose research gave credence to an earlier paper by Freedle (also here)—the upshot of which is that the SAT Verbal continues to be biased against poor and minority students in a very particular way. That is, test takers who are African American, Hispanic-American, Asian American, or White from low-income households tend to do disproportionately well on the “hard” questions and disproportionately poorly on the “easy” ones.

In his 2003 Harvard Educational Review article, Freedle explains:

A culturally based interpretation helps explain why African American examinees (and other minorities) often do better on many hard verbal items but do worse than matched-ability Whites on many easy items. To begin with, easy analogy items tend to contain high-frequency vocabulary words while hard analogy items tend to contain low-frequency vocabulary words (Freedle & Kostin, 1997). For example, words such as “horse,” “snake,” “canoe,” and “golf” have appeared in several easy analogy items. These are words used frequently in everyday conversations. By contrast, words such as “vehemence,” “anathema,” “sycophant,” and “intractable” are words that have appeared in hard analogy items, and do not appear in everyday conversation (Berger, 1977). However, they are likely to occur in school-related contexts or in textbooks.

In other words, kids who are somewhat outside of the cultural mainstream do less well on items built around assumptions about common knowledge—the words and ideas that are “used frequently in everyday conversations.”  But what if your language or culture or social standing diminishes the chances that you actually engage in everyday conversations about golfing or canoes? In that case, it makes perfect sense to expect that you would do better on the “harder”—even the “arcane”—school-related items that are built around the words, ideas, and texts that you have actually been taught.

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Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Or, put another way: Assessments of student learning are neither fair nor valid unless they measure only the content and skills that students have actually been given the opportunity to learn. And the only way to do that, of course, is to know what they have been taught—that is, in the presence of a defined curriculum.

The Problem with Curriculum

There are some very good reasons why the United States, unlike most of the world’s highest-performing nations, has avoided adopting a national curriculum for all of these years. As David K. Cohen has noted:

For school systems around the world, the infrastructure commonly includes student curricula or curriculum frameworks, exams to assess students’ learning of the curricula, instruction that centers on teaching that curriculum, and teacher education that aims to help prospective teachers learn how to teach the curricula. The U.S. has had no such common and unifying infrastructure for schools, owing in part to fragmented government (including local control) and traditions of weak state guidance about curriculum and teacher education.

Another huge issue is that “curriculum” has become a catch-all that describes everything from general performance standards all the way to student texts with scripted daily lesson plans. Thus, in any given discussion about the role of curriculum in a well functioning school system, it is very likely that the discussants are actually talking past each other. This has led to many unintentionally amusing statementsresponses and counter-responses, as each “side” tries to clarify what it and others are actually trying to promote and/or oppose.

In terms of equity concerns, I think that E. D. Hirsch has it exactly right. That is, we need to make sure that every American student—regardless of economic, geographic, racial or ethnic background—is provided with a “coherent, cumulative, and content-specific core curriculum” (see here, but also hereherehere and here).

As Hirsch uses the term, the “curriculum” should provide enough guidance to teachers to ensure that what is taught will prepare students for the learning that comes next, while remaining flexible enough for teachers (or schools or districts) to decide for themselves which specific materials and instructional approaches best meet the needs of any particular set of students. He uses the term “core” to mean both that which is most important, which should be taught in common to all students, as well as that which is foundational to the more personalized courses of study that students may choose for themselves during their high-school years. Thus, Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Sequence, which covers pre-K to 8th grade, could also be described as a curriculum framework or syllabus—a coherent “outline of the subjects in a course of study.”

It is no accident that Hirsch’s theory of action also squares with a great deal of national and international research suggesting that schools with greater curricular and instructional coherence achieve greater improvement in student performance (herehere and here).

So what might this look like in practice? In a 2003 Educational Researcher article, Lisa Delpit has given a rationale for why schools need to provide all students with access to “the culture of power”:

In my work in dozens of successful classrooms, effective teachers of low-income students of color take every opportunity to introduce children to complex material. While children are learning to “decode,” teachers read complex information to children above their reading level and engage in discussions about the information and the advanced vocabulary they encounter. Students are involved in activities that use the information and vocabulary in both creative and analytical ways, and teachers help them create metaphors for the new knowledge that connects it to their real lives. Students memorize and dramatize material that involves advanced vocabulary and linguistic forms. Students are engaged in thematic units that are ongoing and repeat important domain knowledge and develop vocabulary through repeated oral use. Students are asked to explain what they have learned to others, thus solidifying new knowledge. Not only do the teachers and schools who are successful with low-income children practice these strategies, but some other researchers (Beck et al., 2002Hirsch, 2003Stahl, 1991Sternberg, 1987, to name but a few) have documented the efficacies of the strategies as well. Successful instruction is constant, rigorous, integrated across disciplines, connected to students’ lived cultures, connected to their intellectual legacies, engaging, and designed for critical thinking and problem solving that is useful beyond the classroom.

Will the new SAT—or, for that matter, the new Common Core State Standards, which David Coleman also had a large hand in crafting—lead us toward this vision of educational opportunity? That is yet to be seen, but I would have much more confidence in the outcome if each state department of education had begun with a focus on teaching to the new standards, rather than just testing them. Where are the rich curriculum resources and professional development opportunities that would allow this vision to take hold? And, failing this, what exactly is it that we propose to measure?

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* Paradoxically, although the data confirm the expected class-based differences in the use of test prep courses, it should be noted that “blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites from comparable backgrounds to utilize test preparation. The black-white gap is especially pronounced in the use of high school courses, private courses and private tutors.” See here for more on this.

 

Same SAT, Different Day

by Robert Pondiscio
September 15th, 2011

Still blaming poor SAT scores on test-takers?

SAT reading scores for 2011 high schools grads fell to their lowest point in history. The College Board attributes the decline “to the increasing diversity of the students taking the test,” notes the New York Times. But that argument was effectively dismissed by E. D. Hirsch when scores were announced last year.

“The standard explanation is that our test scores have declined chiefly because of a demographic broadening of the test-taking base. This claim ignores compelling contrary evidence. During the period of the big drop, from 1965 to 1980, verbal scores in the state of Iowa – 98 percent white and middle class – dropped with similar sharpness.

What changed, Hirsch noted, had less to do with the demographics of the test-takers “than the anti-intellectual ideas that fully took over first teacher-training schools and then the teachers and administrators they trained. The result was a retreat from a knowledge-based elementary curriculum — as researchers have shown by analyzing the severe watering down of American school books in the period 1950-to the present. The decline of the elementary curriculum coincided with our sharp decline in verbal ability and test scores.”

A sloppy workman blames his tools.   Or in this case, test-takers.

SAT Down and Cried Today

by Robert Pondiscio
August 26th, 2009

The Class of 2009, who were in 5th grade when No Child Left Behind became the law of the land, and were not yet born when A Nation at Risk ushered in the era of education reform, have posted SAT scores that summon to mind a flatlined EKG.  Math unchanged at 515.  Writing down a point to 493.  Critical reading, down a point to 494.  The results are of a piece with last week’s ACT scores, which showed only one of four high school graduates are prepared to do C level college work in English, math, reading and science.

“Completing a core curriculum remains strongly related to SAT scores,” the College Board notes in a news release.  ”Students in the class of 2009 who took core curricula scored an average of 46 points higher on the critical reading section, 44 points higher on the mathematics section, and 45 points higher on the writing section than those who did not.”

“The College Board, as always, hung a smiley face on it, but the latest SAT results are a real bummer,” writes Checker Finn at Fordham’s Flypaper blog.  Looking at years of stagnant NAEP results, last week’s dispiriting ACT scores and flat high school graduation rates, Finn says “please sing out if you’ve spotted any good news regarding the readiness of American adolescents to face successfully the challenges of higher education, the workforce, adulthood and citizenship. I can’t find it.”

Let me add a few verses to Checker’s refrain:  Please sing out if you see elementary schools creating a path to college readiness by favoring a rich, robust curriculum over of the deadening pabulum of test prep and ineffective reading strategies.  Please sing out too, if you can explain how changing the operative definition of well educated to “reads on or near grade level” has done anything other than cement in place this march of mediocrity.  

There’s no guarantee that a patient buildup of knowledge and language proficiency that pays dividends over time will show up in a single year’s standardized testing snapshot, so please explain too how any school or teacher can afford  to take the necessary long view, when we have essentially declared that a little bit of success every year is more important–and measurable–than great success over time. 

Please sing out if you see something–anything–that is going to change this dispiriting trend in the foreseeable future.  I can’t find it.

The Best and the Brightestest

by Robert Pondiscio
December 8th, 2008

It is a generational right, and probably a compulsion, to look at the generation in the rear view mirror and pronounce them unfit to lead.  Hence books like Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation, and Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason.  But look at the data, and you’ll see something surprising.  The short of the stick in the brains department is being held, not by today’s 20-somethings and teens, but by those born from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s.  “Compared with every other birth cohort,” writes author Neil Howe in the Washington Post, “they have performed the worst on standardized exams, acquired the fewest educational degrees and been the least attracted to professional careers. In a word, they’re the dumbest.”

Want proof? Let’s start with the long-term results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is housed within the U.S. Department of Education. Considered the gold standard in assessing K-12 students, the NAEP has been in continuous operation for decades. Here’s the bottom line: On both the reading and the math tests, and at all three tested ages (9, 13 and 17), the lowest-ever scores in the history of the NAEP were recorded by children born between 1961 and 1965.

Same story, different test:  “The SAT reached its all-time high in 1963, when it tested the 1946 birth cohort,” says Howe.  “Then it fell steeply for 17 straight years, hitting its all-time low in 1980, when it tested the 1963 cohort.  Ever since, the SAT has been gradually if haltingly on the rise, paralleling improvements in the NAEP.”