Many of us believe the college admissions process has spiraled out of control. Plenty among us also feel that our education system has become too test-centric.
And at the intersection of the two lies the SAT, the most dreaded, derided and feared test in the world.
How loathed is the SAT? I googled the term “hate the SAT” and found chatrooms where anxious students unloaded their grievances against the college admissions test. It “ruins lives” was a typical comment. One YouTube video showed a student beating up his SAT study guide.
I read discourses by furious parents who resent their children’s college prospects being held hostage to a single test that is meant to measure — well, we don’t really know what the purpose of the test is any more, other than keeping the College Board and test-prep industry alive. Oh, and it also gives colleges an easy way to destroy kids’ dreams.
The SAT’s problems persist despite the fact that it’s been rethought, reinvented and re-rationalized many times over. And even though the rival ACT is now widely accepted, the SAT remains perversely powerful, particularly here in California, where it’s the bane of most high school students’ existence.
The origins of the SAT date back to the turn of the 20th century, when William McKinley was president, women wore corsets, and few Americans finished high school, much less went to college. The College Entrance Examination Board, with 12 university members, was established to administer admissions tests.
A few years later, French psychologist Alfred Binet created the first IQ test; the idea gained traction during World War I when Harvard professor Robert Yerkes tested nearly two 2 Army recruits. His colleague, Carl Brigham, was asked by the College Board to develop a standardized admissions test, which would later become the SAT.
By the 1940s, the Educational Testing Service was formed to administer the SAT (the College Board owns the test), but the big break came in 1960 when the huge University of California system began requiring it for admission.
Controversy has dogged the SAT throughout its history; most notable have been charges of racism and elitism. The test was reworked most recently in 2005 when the essay portion was added, prompting new criticism that evaluations would be far too subjective. Through all its iterations, one particularly disliked feature — the quarter-point deduction for wrong answers — persists.
Ironically, “SAT” doesn’t even stand for anything. At first, it was an acronym for Scholastic Aptitude Test, reflecting the frequently contested claim that it could predict academic potential. Then it became the Scholastic Assessment Test, which was hilariously supposed to mean it showed how much students had learned.
Now it’s just the SAT, acronym to nothing officially, although unofficially the initials have inspired many profane nicknames.
But a sliver of hope for future generations of test-takers has emerged. The College Board has a new president, David Coleman, one of the architects of the Common Core educational standards who accepted the $1.3-million-a-year post last fall. In February, the College Board announced that the SAT would again be redesigned “so that it better meets the needs of students, schools and colleges at all levels.”
Mr. Coleman, I have a few ideas. All of them would require scrapping the current test entirely and starting from scratch. But hey, you’re not getting paid the big bucks to think small, and even though you can’t say it publicly, I figure you know just as well as the rest of us that the SAT really reeks.
Here are my suggestions:
•Turn it into a board game.
A Monopoly-type format might suit because that game is all about making money, which is a big part of why we want our kids to go to college. But I wouldn’t discount a Risk-type model because world domination is also a fairly reliable measure of success. Both would require critical thinking and math skills. And since standardized testing has prompted efforts to “game” the system anyway, why not turn it into a real game?
•Require students to assemble a piece of furniture from IKEA.
Anyone who can figure out the hieroglyphic instructions, match up every screw with the correct corresponding hole, and not attach any part backwards on the first try should be recruited to work on a Mars mission as far as I’m concerned. College calculus should be a breeze.
•Make it a “Game of Thrones” test.
Students would be required to recite all the characters, spelling their names correctly, and explain the relationships. The test-takers should know all the kingdoms and be able to identify them on a map. Extra points would be given to those with a passing knowledge of the High Valyrian and Dothraki languages.
•Have students participate in a reality TV competition.
I’m partial to cooking contests. (“I’m sorry, you’ve been chopped.”) But if television has taught us anything, it’s that any pursuit can be fodder for battles of wits and endurance. So let’s put some extra skin in the game by putting college acceptances at risk.
You might consider these ideas absurd, Mr. Coleman, but they’re no more outlandish than what we have now. And you might go down in history as a hero for having the guts to replace the most hated test of all time with something that’s at least a little fun. You’re welcome.
PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.