The SAT: Still Useless

Last time the blogosphere heard from me – before I succumbed to a wave of final exams and Fall class prep – I only taught at one community college. The good news is I’ve picked up more work for the fall, and the better news is that I can quit my job as a private SAT tutor.

Oh, how I hate you, SAT.

About a month ago, Wake Forest University and Smith College announced that they’ll no longer be including the SAT among their application requirements. My alma mater made the same announcement a couple of years ago, and many other colleges have followed suit. This is very good news. SAT scores are pretty notorious for correlating more with income than with intelligence or scholastic achievement; a student who gets a 2350 is more likely to come from a middle to upper class family, and an A student from an impoverished or working class family will probably score lower. There are a few reasons for this disparity – non-college-track curricula at lower income schools, different dialects in different classes – and most liberals are at least vaguely aware that wealthier students have an unfair advantage. I didn’t realize how stark the disparity is, though, until I spent a year teaching upper-middle-class students strategies and tricks.

See, the SAT has nothing to do with academics. The SAT, as one of the trainers in my tutoring job informed us, tests you on how well you know the SAT.

Sure, they revamped it a few years ago, replacing the analogies with grammar questions and an essay. But the Educational Testing Service is a for-profit corporation, and their main objective is to make money. The more times students take the SAT, and the more copies of the official study guide they buy, the more money ETS makes. (NOTE: Karen tells me in the comments that ETS is actually a nonprofit. I was going by what I was told by my company, but I should have fact-checked it. Sorry about that.) This means that they write the questions in such a way that you often have to know ahead of time what traps to watch out for and what kind of answers they want. There are many questions that students are very unlikely to answer correctly if they can’t afford the $800 for a class, the $2-3000 for tutoring, or even the $20 for the study guide.

Take, for example, this Identifying Sentence Errors question:

Nearly all (A) of the editors of the magazine agree (B) that of the two articles to be published (C), Fujimura’s is the more exciting (D).

Students have choose the word or phrase that contains an error. If the sentence is fine as is, then the answer is E – No Error. Now, many of you probably know what the answer is above, but that’s because many of you are adults. Do seventeen-year-olds – even AP and private school students – know the correct answer to this question? Not until I show up at their house and give them extra grammar lessons. Most of my students choose D, because the wording sounds weird. We don’t normally say “the more exciting” – we say either “more exciting” or “the most exciting.” But you can only say “most” if there are three or more things being compared. Since there are only two articles, the correct answer is E.

How about this one:

The new system, which uses (A) remote cameras in the catching of (B) speeding motorboats (C), may undermine (D) the police department’s authority.

Students sometimes pause at “in the catching of,” but chances are they’ve heard that construction before. They’re used to academic English sounding fancier and more complicated than normal English, so they assume it’s correct. However, it’s an idiomatic error. The proper construction is “to catch.” The answer is B.

What really drives me crazy, though, are the pronoun questions:

When (A) a government agency encouraged the use of high-grade recycled office paper, they (B) helped increase the availability of (C) writing paper and envelopes made from (D) recycled paper.

Again, many of you probably caught the error immediately… but high school students often don’t know that when the subject of a sentence – in this case, the agency – is singular, then all pronouns pertaining to it must also be singular, even if the subject is a conglomeration of many other subjects. The answer is B; “they” should be “it.”

The tutoring company I work for has a money-back guarantee if students’ scores don’t go up at least a hundred points. They can do this because students’ scores usually go up about 400 points after ten weeks of private tutoring. We’re teaching them rules they’re not learning in school.

You’d think the essay would be a more accurate way to gauge a student’s ability, but even that’s not always the case. When I was in high school, I took the SAT II, which contained the essay section before they stuck it into the SAT. The prompt asked me if the individual is more important than society. (Or something like that.) I responded – quite eloquently, I think – by saying that, because society is made up of individuals, the individual and society are equally important. And I bombed. The graders are told to make sure essays argue one side or the other; any other response should result in a lower score. I got an A in my AP English class and went to a college known for its writing program, but according to my SAT II score, I was a terrible writer – because I didn’t have a tutor to tell me what exactly I was being tested on.

This is why lower income students get lower scores on the SAT – they just aren’t getting the extra help necessary to learn what the test wants. Which isn’t to say that it’s impossible to get a good score without extra help. But the statistics are pretty telling.

So I’m glad that Wake Forest and Smith are discontinuing the requirement. The problem, though, is that the schools that are discontinuing it are, for the most part, expensive private schools. This means that the students who are applying there are usually the students who could afford SAT coaching anyway. To really level the playing field, all schools must drop their SAT requirements – especially state universities, which are the most affordable. Admissions committees are learning nothing from standardized test scores that they don’t learn from transcripts, sample essays, interviews, and personal statements.

While we wait for that to happen, though, lower income students need more access to outside help. There are some organizations, like 826 Valencia, that offer free SAT prep courses when qualified volunteers are available, but the more the merrier, right? So I’m ending this post with an invitation: leave a comment if you live in the Los Angeles or Orange County area and are interested in – or are already – teaching SAT prep. I’m not officially starting anything here – I just want to see how much interest there is, or if there are any groups I and others could join.

(cross-posted at Alas, a Blog)

6 Responses

  1. I would think an SAT tutor would know that ETS is a nonprofit organization, so their main goal is not to “make money.” Maybe you should check out their website,

  2. I worked at ETS, and it’s interesting. There are a lot of problems with the organisation, and with the tests — watching them do the marking of the AP studio art projects was beyond depressing — but as a whole, it’s made up of researchers who want the tests to be useful and fair.

    That said, I came out of there more convinced than ever that standardised testing is a waste of time, except for specific professional designations.

  3. I am a immigrant from China. I came to US ten years ago. I definitely agree with the argument that SAT is useless in determining student’s success in college.
    Take me for an example, back in my junior year in high school, I scored only a 290 on the verbal part of SAT, and 450 on the SAT II writing part. But I got into Queens College in NY because my high score on the math section. During my four years of college, I achieved a 3.6 overall GPA, 3.9 accounting major GPA, and I never got anything lower than B in my college English classes. 6 month after I graduate, I passed all four sections of the uniform CPA exam with an average of 88. Overall, I believe although SAT is one of the factors to test students how they masters the English language, judging student’s future ability based on a single test score is just wrong!

  4. Karen – actually, I think it’s because I’m an SAT tutor that I made that mistake. The tutoring companies I have experience with always trained us and our students (although they didn’t state explicitly that this was what they were doing) to view the SAT as an adversary, and painting ETS as an evil money-making machine was part of this. Either I misunderstood or they gave me false information, but I should have fact-checked it, and I apologize for the error.

  5. how many schools still require the SAT? i kno here in illinois our state schools and if im correct our private schools use the ACT and i thought that was becoming more common nationwide. obviously aptitude tests are still problematic, but from what i understand the ACT is a more accessible test. my junior college doesn’t require either, so i wouldn’t kno.

  6. Interesting. I’ve only done a tiny bit of ACT tutoring, but from what I can tell, it seems to be a little more straightforward (although there are still a lot of tricks you need to know).

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