Revised SAT vs. Real Learning: Where Boarding Schools and Private Schools Excel

I’ll start this column, by recommending professors’ Atkinson and Geiser’s recent New York Times article, The Big Problem With the New SAT in which they make the case that the recent revisions of the SAT don’t go far enough in bringing the test into the modern world.

Atkinson and Geiser write:

While a clear improvement, the revised SAT remains problematic. It will still emphasize speed — quick recall and time management — over subject knowledge. Despite evidence that writing is the single most important skill for success in college, the essay will be optional. (Reading and math will still be required.)

And the biggest problem is this: While the content will be new, the underlying design will not change. The SAT will remain a ‘norm-referenced’ exam, designed primarily to rank students rather than measure what they actually know. Such exams compare students to other test takers, rather than measure their performance against a fixed standard. They are designed to produce a ‘bell curve’ distribution among examinees, with most scoring in the middle and with sharply descending numbers at the top and bottom. Test designers accomplish this, among other ways, by using plausible-sounding ‘distractors’ to make multiple-choice items more difficult, requiring students to respond to a large number of items in a short space of time, and by dropping questions that too many students can answer correctly.

‘Criterion-referenced’ tests, on the other hand, measure how much students know about a given subject. Performance is not assessed in relation to how others perform but in relation to fixed academic standards. Assuming they have mastered the material, it is possible for a large proportion, even a majority, of examinees to score well; this is not possible on a norm-referenced test.

K-12 schools increasingly employ criterion-referenced tests for this reason. That approach reflects the movement during the past two decades in all of the states — those that have adopted their own standards, as well as those that have adopted the Common Core — to set explicit learning standards and assess achievement against them.”(NYT)

So what’s the connection these recent SAT changes to boarding and privates schools?

Many, if not most, boarding and private schools have practiced criterion-referenced teaching, learning, and testing for years. Twenty-six years ago, the academic dean at my school handed me book on mastery teaching.

Creating a sifting curve and ranking students isn’t what’s important.

What’s important is did you (our student) learn and master the material to the best of your ability?

Why is this important? It means that every student can succeed and, when he hasn’t mastered the material, he can go back and learn it. This approach eliminates the comparison among individuals and focuses the student on what he/she learns and masters.

It is, in short, student centered and transparent. Everyone knows what they have to do in order to score well. And, what matters is what you do as a student.

Does every student master everything and earn high scores- all day-every day? No. But, it’s also perfectly possible for everyone to succeed.

But in the criterion-referenced teaching and learning of boarding and private schools everything is transparent; the goals and rankings don’t shift; and everyone knows what they need to do to succeed.

And, what each student must do/learn/master in order to succeed is different and occurs at different rates.

Most private school students must still take, and use, the SAT as part of their college admission packet. But, they will graduate with a body of real learning, knowledge, processes, sand kills that each will use and continue to build on to gain a level of personal success.

Yes, our students will still have to make the SAT part of their admission packet. But, hopefully, they’ll leave our schools knowing a good deal about how they learn; what they need to do in order to succeed; and, how to put themselves in position to succeed.

None of which requires them to rank-order themselves on a norm-referenced, artificially created bell curve.

Brian Fisher

A product of both private and public education, Brian Fisher served as a teacher, coach, dorm parent, and administrator at three different boarding schools. Brian also fills the role of Director of Development at Wolfeboro, The Summer Boarding School, in NH along with being a partner at AdmissionsQuest.

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