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The new SAT will teach students how to think, not just how to feel

For Canadians, college entrance examinations such as the SAT are an alien notion. Generations of American students have dutifully taken test prep courses hoping for high scores: 1.66 million of them sat for the SAT in 2012. Canadian students have only had to ace their last couple of years of high school, to make sure they have a university or college spot.

For U.S. universities, test scores are another way to sort college applicants out, ranking them into "percentiles" that college admissions officers can factor into their decisions. Ever since the beginning of this system, there have been questions about the tests' reliability. Apart from concerns about how much the SAT correlates with income and race, many college educators have questioned whether the SAT itself tests the kind of reading, thinking or writing skills university demands. Instead, its writing component has been testing how well students have learned how to satisfy the demands of the high-school curriculum. As any Canadian professor would know, being good at high-school writing has little to do with university-level, or workplace,communication.

That's why the College Board's announcement of several changes to the format of the test is a notable development in secondary education in the United States. Because of the stakes of test scores, whatever shows up on the SAT better be in high school classes too, or else students will walk in unprepared. The resulting performances will reflect upon teachers and school officials. No governor wants his or her state to rank near the bottom on the SAT ladder.

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While Canada does not have this direct link between high school and postsecondary education systems, changes to the SAT will alter readings and assignments in American high schools in every state. What will be the changes that students will encounter?

College Board president David Coleman has long denounced essays that draw on personal experience and opinion, which he says rarely have any connection to college study and workplace duties. But the existing SAT essay prompts allow it all the time, typically presenting a short quotation followed by a question. The January 2014 test contained a Frederick Douglass statement on struggle and progress, then added this task:

"Assignment: Does progress result only from struggle and conflict? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations."

Despite the call for reasoning, such tasks invite baseless feelings and floating opinions. One sees worse versions in school assignments such as this one I found in a Georgia Department of Education curriculum guide for 11th Grade:

"The characters in Ernest Hemingway's 'A Clean, Well-Lighted Place' are all seeking a home, a place of refuge, a place that is 'clean and pleasant.' Describe your own 'clean, well-lighted place,' the place where you feel safe, secure, and most 'at home.'"

The task doesn't call for any knowledge about Hemingway or analysis of the story, only a willingness to get personal.

Educators often favour these approaches because they encourage personal engagement with the material and inspire better writing. Even if that dubious belief is true, when we review college writing assignments in the humanities and sciences few self-expressive assignments like this one happen.

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Most college teachers, not to mention most bosses, don't want to hear about you – they want you to examine the object, interpret a text, and extrapolate from data. The more students emote and opine in high school, the more college teachers have to disabuse them of the habit and instill objective, analytical dispositions. The College Board scraps these types of assignments entirely, treating passages not as springboards for personal reflection, but as objects of study. It groups the new tasks under the heading "Command of Evidence."

History assignments will change as well.

Because the new SAT will contain "an excerpt from one of the Founding Documents or a text from the ongoing Great Global Conservation about freedom, justice, and human dignity," teachers will ensure that every student knows those documents – the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, Gettysburg Address, etc. – plus related contemporary discussions of rights and justice. Canadians may think that every student in the U.S. already does so, but in fact the civic knowledge possessed by young (and old) Americans is weak. The 2010 assessment of civics by the U.S. Dept. of Education showed only 24 per cent of 12th graders reaching proficiency. On the the easy question asking them to state two responsibilities of citizens, for instance, fully one-third of them couldn't come up with basic replies such as "Obeying the law" and "Voting."

Those of us who teach writing and civic-historical knowledge to first-year college students complain incessantly about their inferior preparation, and it isn't just elderly grumbling. We need much more than a revised SAT to raise their condition, but these particular reforms are a potent first step.

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University. He is the author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.

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