Common Core-aligned SAT downplays aptitude in favor of learning

swarthmoreFirst published in Newsday.

College-bound Americans, along with their parents and guidance counselors, exhaled with relief when the PSAT scores were announced last week. This college entrance exam was the first to reflect the much-debated Common Core learning standards, and the importance of a good score cannot be overestimated.

Anxiety over the PSAT ballooned when the scores were delayed by nearly two months. Usually, scores for a test taken on Oct. 14 would have been available in early November. They came out Jan. 7.

Clearly, the College Board, the nonprofit organization that administers the SAT, wants to get this right. And the result? My survey of one - my daughter, who is a high school junior - showed exactly the same scores on the old SAT and the new PSAT. She took both in the fall, as did many students hoping to get one last opportunity at the SAT before it was redesigned. I've heard that many other test-takers were pleasantly surprised with their PSAT scores.

Skeptics of the test had been warning college-bound students away from the new SAT, which will be given for the first time this March. For example, test-prep expert Adam Ingersoll of the Compass Education Group told education bloggers that a student taking the new SAT would be "a guinea pig" until the test established a track record.

So, I found the similarity between the old and new test scores reassuring. But what I like even better is the direction in which testing for college preparedness seems to be moving. The old SAT - previously the Scholastic Aptitude Test - purported to measure a student's potential, with its infamous arcane vocabulary words, tricky math questions and points deducted for wrong answers.

The new version more closely reflects what kids have learned in school, like its competitor, the ACT - previously short for American College Testing - according to Jay Bacrania, chief executive of test-preparation company Signet Education.

The new SAT design would seem to reward effort as opposed to sheer innate ability, which has potentially sat on the bench lazily wasting its high school years. Who's to say it will get into the game in college?

The SAT had to change because it was losing ground to the ACT. The SAT had been popular on the East and West coasts, while the ACT was favored in the middle of the country. As of 2012, the ACT overtook the SAT in terms of the number of test-takers. The College Board hired David Coleman, a chief architect of the Common Core English standards, to rescue its SAT.

So, why not simply take the ACT instead?

I asked Bacrania. He said students who can work fast and understand charts and graphs will appreciate the ACT. The new SAT will appeal to test-takers with a higher reading level. There is more reading throughout the test, including in the math section.

Fair entrance exams are vital because our changing economy is forcing a higher percentage of people to attend college to earn a good living. There are more applicants, and the Common Application has made it easier for one student to apply to many colleges and universities. Inundated, many college admissions offices are relying heavily on test scores.

The stakes are high not just for individual students, but for our future as an educated nation with a shot at a healthy middle class. Parents and kids may "opt out" of standardized tests in grades three through eight, but that's not as uncomplicated an option as college nears.