Every year, thousands of students from across the world write the College Board’s SAT, in hopes of getting accepted into a top American university. The SAT, one of the staples of the university application process, currently consists of three sections: reading, writing, and mathematics, with an essay forming part of the writing section.

The SAT is supposed to be a fair and accurate indicator of the basic academic abilities of a student. The test is standardized across all testing locations and contains a variety of question types, from improving sentences to analyzing long passages. However, the reality is that the SAT doesn’t truly test for understanding.

Out of all three sections, writing is the least accurate measure of students’ actual abilities. The majority of the SAT’s writing section is concerned with nitpicking grammar rules, many of which are simply ignored in everyday writing and speech. It makes no sense to attribute so much importance to something which is rarely consciously applied in real life.

Even more problematic than the writing section’s grammar questions is the essay. In theory, the essay tests how well students communicate their ideas,  but this is not the case. The most significant factor in an SAT essay score is the length of the essay, which any English teacher will tell you is completely irrelevant to the quality of the writing. Graders are explicitly instructed to read essays only once, and some are so “good” at marking essays that they can guess the score just by looking at the size and shape of the essay.

The SAT essay does not test for so many important elements of writing: writing quality, logical rigor, factual accuracy, and creative writing ability, to name a few. One might dismiss this as a fault of all standardized tests, but a look at College Board’s own AP English Language or Literature sample essays reveals writing of a far higher standard that is marked accordingly.

Similar issues exist in the other sections of the SAT. The “difficult” math problems don’t require particular ingenuity or creativity, save that the concepts required to solve them aren’t explicitly mentioned in the curriculum. By focusing on breadth of knowledge rather than depth of thinking, the SAT fails to test for the problem-solving skills which are so crucial in actual mathematical thinking. Similarly, the reading section is rigged to present two very similar options to make students guess wrong. The wrong option often contains information that a reader would naturally infer but isn’t actually mentioned in the text – in other words, the SAT discourages critical reading and thinking.

Put all this together, and it’s no surprise that the SAT gives little indication of students’ actual abilities. The founder of the Princeton Review offered this damning indictment of the SAT: “Does it measure intelligence? No. Does it predict college grades? No. Does it tell you how much you learned in high school? No. Does it predict life happiness or life success in any measure? No. It’s measuring nothing.”

To be fair, College Board recognizes that the SAT has shortcomings. The new SAT, set to roll out in January 2016, does make some positive changes. The vocabulary section is being eliminated, addressing criticisms that most of the SAT’s vocabulary words are rarely used in actual writing. The essay section is optional – but most top colleges will require it anyway. Ultimately, these slight improvements do nothing to alleviate the primary issue: the SAT does not test for anything that really counts.

Indeed, it is bizarre and hypocritical that top universities, which pride themselves on educating well-rounded, critical thinkers, place so much importance on a test which focuses only on narrow aspects of math and English and which actively discourages critical thinking. Significant improvements, on a completely different scale from those made by the new SAT, need to be implemented.

The biggest changes must be made to the essay. While the new SAT extends the time allotted to the essay from 25 to 50 minutes, which is a step in the right direction, more remains to be done. Graders must avoid judging essays by length or within the boundaries of some pre-determined formulaic structure. More time has to be given to grade essays as well. If this means having fewer tests throughout the year, so be it.

Furthermore, less importance should be given to the application of grammar and more to actual writing quality. While this could involve judgments on behalf of graders which might compromise objectivity, it is not as if the current SAT is a particularly objective measure of writing skill anyway. In the math section, test writers should turn to the opposite of their current strategy: don’t look for broad knowledge of mathematical facts but instead test for depth of understanding with questions that require actual thinking to solve. And when it comes to reading, answers designed to “throw you off” should be eliminated – it is incredibly cynical and negative for College Board to deliberately mislead students.

The whole point of having the SAT, or any standardized test, is so universities have a fair benchmark by which to judge students. But this cannot be done if the test itself is fundamentally flawed. The old adage says “Play stupid games, win stupid prizes” – the SAT is a stupid game, but college admission is far from a stupid prize. As it stands, the SAT is a waste of time for students and universities alike.

Amy Yan

Image: Amy Yan




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