Prof says revised SAT won’t make the grade

A new version of the SAT was administered to students across the country on March 12, with changes including a 25-minute essay and a more difficult math section that are designed to align the standardized test more directly with the high school curriculum. Yet Yale psychology professor Robert Sternberg, who has been developing his own test to supplement the SAT, said even with the changes, the SAT is inadequate in measuring skills important for success in college and life.

“The SAT does a reasonable job of measuring knowledge and analytical skills,” Sternberg said. “But the idea is that there are other skills that are important, such as creative and practical skills, that it might not measure quite as well.”

Sternberg said that although the new SAT better measures writing and more advanced math than the previous version, it will further disadvantage some minority groups.

“Most scholars, including myself, believe that not only will it not decrease ethnic group differences, it is likely to increase them,” Sternberg said. “If you make it more a measure of what you learned in high school, the kids who went to high schools with more advanced work will tend to be at an advantage.”

Sternberg’s test, called “The Rainbow Project,” is designed to test students’ creative and practical skills in a way that he says the SAT does not. Students are asked to perform unconventional tasks, such as writing captions for New Yorker cartoons, outlining how they would solve a particular problem, and writing stories given titles like “The Octopus’s Sneakers” or “35,381.”

Sternberg said that data from the test’s first trial of about 800 students at 13 colleges strongly suggest it can predict success in college better than the SAT.

“We found that this new test doubled prediction of success in college for the schools we looked at, including Yale,” Sternberg said. “In addition, it decreased ethnic group differences by a substantial amount, almost 50 percent.”

The College Board, which administers the SAT, funded the first round of trials for the Rainbow Project, and Sternberg is meeting with officials from the company next week to see if they are interested in funding further trials.

The College Board, meanwhile, has been busy revising the traditional SAT. The new version of the test includes an essay and a new math section with topics from third-year college-preparatory math. The quantitative comparisons and analogy sections of the test have been eliminated in an attempt to better reflect high school curricula from around the country.

“It’s certainly the reason that analogies were eliminated,” SAT Committee Chair Wilbur Washburn said. He added that the difficulty of the math section has only been raised to the level of the ACT, another standardized test used for college admissions.

Washburn said the main focus of the changes was not to improve predictability of performance in college. The changes were likewise not focused on closing the gap between ethnic groups, although the issue was considered.

“It appears that the underrepresented groups will not be disadvantaged to any greater degree,” Washburn said. “The early results of the testing suggested that underrepresented groups were a bit better off. There was less disadvantage to them in the writing section.”

Washburn, who is the assistant vice president for enrollment services at the University of Washington, said that the essay section will be extremely helpful to admissions committees.

“I think it will definitely help us in the admissions office, having a writing sample to look at,” he said. “Although most of the competitive selective universities already require essays, they’re not proctored. We really don’t know how much help students have had writing their essays.”

But Patsy Prince, an SAT tutor in Highland Park, Ill., said she does not think the essay is an improvement to the test.

“All they did was combine the SAT I and SAT II writing tests,” Prince said. “In college, students have the ability to think and proofread. They have the opportunity to write several drafts whereas the essay on the SAT is a very rudimentary first draft.”

Prince said she does not see a strong correlation between performance on the SAT and performance in college.

“I do think it really reflects their vocabulary and reading ability, but there are many successful college students who work very hard and don’t do well on tests,” she said. “In real life they have lots of time to digest material.”

Prince said she is enthusiastic about The Rainbow Project.

“I think it’s a marvelous idea,” she said. “It would add a whole new dimension to this test. Students who are creative and inventive could demonstrate those skills, and colleges could choose from a variety of skills.”

Washburn said he had heard of Sternberg’s test, and thought it could potentially help admissions officers identify certain individual qualities in applicants that the SAT does not. However, he added that SAT scores are not a major factor in admissions decisions, and are considered with other factors such as grades and diversity. The fact that the SAT does not evaluate all aspects of knowledge is okay because there are other ways to evaluate future success in college, such as grades, he said.

Allie Krummel, a high school junior from Palo Alto, Calif., took the new SAT on March 12, and said she thought it was a fair test.

“It wasn’t extremely hard or extremely easy,” she said. “I think it was pretty moderate and most people could do it.”

Krummel said she liked the addition of the essay, even though it added some stress to the test. She said the math sections included material she is currently studying in her high school math class that covers advanced algebra and calculus.

“People in higher math lanes have an advantage,” she said. “But I think it’s a better representation of where people fall in their academics.”

— Staff reporter Callie Siskel contributed to this report.

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