Three hours of misery are apparently not enough. Now the makers of the SAT want to shape what kids learn throughout four years of high school. True, students have always had to brush up on vocabulary and take practice tests before the SAT, but now the College Entrance Examination Board, which owns the test, is developing the "New SAT," an exhaustive revision largely intended to mold the U.S. secondary-school system to its liking.
The College Board wants schools to produce better writers, so the New SAT will require an essay. The board thinks grammar is important, so the new test will ask students to fix poorly deployed gerunds and such. To encourage earlier advanced-math instruction, the New SAT will go beyond basic algebra and geometry for the first time to include Algebra II class material (remember negative exponents--q(-3), for instance?). The board, a powerful group of 4,300 educational institutions--including most of America's leading universities--has undertaken an unprecedented effort to push local school districts to alter their curriculums accordingly.
In short, the dreaded SAT could actually help produce a national curriculum, a sweeping education reform enacted without the passage of a single law. In the process, the test itself will have to change to include questions more like classroom exercises and less like--well, less like SAT items. Two types of SAT questions are vanishing: those frustrating little analogies ("somnolent is to wakeful" as "graceful is to clumsy") and the quirky math items that ask you to compare two complex quantities (see chart on next page for an example). Instead of the venerable math and verbal sections, the test will have three segments that will be more familiar to Americans: the three Rs, reading, writing and arithmetic. (Hence a perfect score will go from 1600 to 2400.)
At first blush, the changes seem healthy enough. But inevitably, some students will do better, and some worse, on the new test. Girls tend to outperform boys on writing exams, so their overall scores could benefit from the addition of the new writing section. Boys usually score higher on the math section, but the new exam will contain fewer of the abstract-reasoning items at which they often excel. The elimination of analogies may exacerbate the black-white SAT score gap, since the gap is somewhat smaller on the analogy section than on the test as a whole, according to Jay Rosner, executive director of the Princeton Review Foundation.
More broadly, students who attend failing schools could suffer as the SAT morphs from a test of general-reasoning abilities into a test of what kids learn in school. "There's a danger that making it too curriculum-dependent will actually increase overall score gaps for some minority groups," says Rebecca Zwick, a former chair of the College Board's own SAT Committee. "Because we have such huge disparities in the quality of schooling in the country, kids who go to crummy schools may be disadvantaged."