Getting it Right and the SAT

My first grade son is starting to get pretty enthusiastic about applying numbers to sports, along the lines of “what does it mean that a team is ‘down 3 possessions’?” when we are watching college basketball on TV and a team is losing by 8 points.

Channeling the instincts of his mother (the Math teacher), I try to ask him to think it through and come up with his best answer.  Some back-and-forth ensues…in this case, some talk of 2-point baskets and 3-point baskets.  More often than not, he figures it out (thanks, genes of the Math teacher…though my father the engineer would also likely claim credit).

Imagine what would happen if, over time, in the instances he got it wrong, I scolded him.  Penalized him.  “No ice cream for you, doofus!  Any idiot could tell you that 3 possessions of 3-point baskets would give you the lead!”  Even a child at the height of curiosity would stop asking those kinds of questions.

As we teach children to learn, we typically don’t penalize wrong answers.  No student would raise a hand in class to offer a sincere answer to a thought-provoking question if there was a possibility of being docked points for being incorrect.  A fear of failure gets in the way of a growth mindset, and the syllabus of any Education program in the country includes case studies that show the detrimental effects that come from knowingly or unknowingly chastising or embarrassing students who fall short with answers.

After years of “give it your best shot”, students encounter, around the age of 16 or 17, a high-stakes moment that runs counter to this spirit: the SAT.  Test-takers must take on the mindset that “if I can’t make the odds such that I am relatively certain I have the best answer, I should leave it blank because it is going to cost me points to give the wrong answer”.   The current SAT doesn’t just count correct answers; it docks ¼ of a point for every wrong answer.

There are a number of professions in which it is very bad to be wrong…air traffic controllers come to mind.  I can imagine certifications that might purposely (and appropriately) steer candidates from making guesses; however, the creators of the test do not say they are in the business of certification…they say they are an organization that “connects students to college success and opportunity”.

The SAT’s penalty communicates “don’t fail” instead of “show what you know”.  It sends parents and students flocking to test prep companies, which, among other things, help students re-engineer their brains and engage in gimmicks to take apart the test.

Back when I was slogging through this unseemly right of passage, one had to pay for the next test prior to finding the results of the previous one.   Just before taking what turned out to be my last SAT, I learned that I’d gotten a score from my previous sitting that put me at the threshold for my top-choice colleges.  Given that I’d already paid for the next test,  I felt I should take it.  There was nothing to lose; only my best score would be counted, anyway.

I don’t think I skipped a single question…the fear of failure was gone.  It helped that I knew “melior” (a nominative Latin adjective meaning “better”) when I came across the need to find a synonym for “ameliorate”, a word I’d never encountered.  I “nailed” the test.

The College Board has finally come to its senses…in 2016 a new SAT will be unveiled, and there will be no more penalties for wrong answers (and likely there will be fewer words like “ameliorate”).

While I don’t think SAT will ever be a perfect tool for determining college outcomes, the College Board is closer to getting it right; these changes will ameliorate the some of the glaring issues in the current version.

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