News and Tribune


April 4, 2014

STAWAR: Rebooting the SAT

— In early March, the College Board organization released its plan to make changes in the SAT — the test that more than 1.7 million students take annually to apply for college.

Originally, SAT was an acronym for Scholastic Aptitude Test, but after the term aptitude was deemed too old-fashioned, it was briefly called the Scholastic Assessment Test. Eventually, it was just called the SAT, removing “aptitude,” the same way KFC got rid of “Fried” from Kentucky Fried Chicken.

In recent years, the SAT has been over taken by its younger arch rival the ACT (American College Test), which has been more responsive to student’s needs and better aligned with the high school curriculum.

The predictive validity of such standardized tests has been under fire for some time. A 2008 study published by the College Board itself concluded that high school grade point average was a better predictor of first year college grades than SAT scores. Even when SAT scores are combined with high school GPAs and statistically corrected for the narrow range of students selected for college, they still account for less than 30 percent of the variance in first year college GPAs.

Case Western Reserve University psychologists Meredith Frey and Douglas Detterman from found moderately high correlation between SAT scores and two standard intelligence tests — the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery and Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices. Most psychologists consider the SAT, and tests of its ilk, as watered-down versions of general intelligence tests. As such they are subject to the same draw-backs, such as cultural and economic bias and the fact that they measure only one or two kinds of intelligence.

Howard Gardner, a Harvard developmental psychologist, believes that there are at least eight different kinds of intelligence: linguistic, logic-mathematical, musical, spatial, bodily/kinesthetic, social/emotional, intrapersonal, and naturalistic (being in tune with nature). Although most of these never find themselves as part of the college admission process, all play a role in succeeding in academia, as well as life.

The corporate world has especially seized upon the importance of emotional intelligence — the ability to identify, assess, and control the emotions of oneself and others — as it relates to business success. Coaching executives and other leaders in how to increase their emotional intelligence has become an important specialty within the field of training and development. .

Aside from grades and types of intelligence, conscientiousness, a fundamental personality factor, has been found to account for up to 15 percent of the variance in first year college GPAs. Diligence, striving and self-discipline, all aspects of conscientiousness, are also not typically represented in the college admission equation.

 Recently in Time Magazine, Leon Botstein, President of Bard College, called the SAT “part hoax, part fraud.” He claims that some colleges and the College Board are in an “unholy alliance” conspiring to use the SAT to justify excluding students, just to boost school’s academic rankings.

In announcing the coming changes, College Board president David Coleman said “What this country needs is not more tests, but more opportunities.”

Perhaps that is true, but the SAT is still primarily a test. The new iteration will have three sections: Evidence-based reading and writing, math, and an optional essay. It will employ a 1,600-point scale with the essay test separately scored.

The trademark esoteric vocabulary is toned down to “focus on words that students will use consistently in college and beyond.” Some traditionalists say that this is “dumbing down,” but in the new vernacular, it’s just more “user friendly.”

Future examinees will be asked to cite specific evidence in the reading and writing section to support conclusions and the essay will measure analytic skills and the ability to formulate arguments. Source documents from a wide range of disciplines will also be used, including passages from what are called the “founding documents of America” (Declaration of Independence, Constitution, etc.)

 The math section assesses problem solving, data analysis and essentials of algebra. There is now an emphasis on using real world contexts and greater coordination with the high school experience.

I’m impressed by the fact that the new test no longer penalizes guessing. The SAT has caught up with everyone else in acknowledging that guessing is an important real world skill.

Income-eligible students will also get four fee waivers for college applications and to further level the playing field, the Khan Academy will provide free online test preparation.

All of this is supposed to help the SAT maintain its relevance in the realm of college admissions, allow it to compete with the ACT, and just maybe, help more deserving students get into college.

Botstein considers these proposed changes “harmless,” but says what is really needed is “an entirely new generation of testing instruments…”

In graduate school, one of my education professors constantly told us that knowledge should be “free and abundant.” Of course, he usually said this when he was complaining about a library fine or was about to commit copyright infringement.

Nevertheless, he had a point. Perhaps instead of devising ever more sophisticated tests to exclude students, we should be using our technology and resources to provide more people with an opportunity for a better life.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at For more see the Welcome to Planet-Terry blog at

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