The SAT: A New Core Subject in Schools?

The college-admissions exam is poised to play an increasing role in the classroom, and chances are it’ll further detract from traditional instruction.lead_960

Last week, two major education companies unveiled a set of resources that they’ve pledged will help all kids—rich or poor—succeed on the SAT. After decades of denying the value of test prep, the College Board, which administers the SAT, is now promoting interactive, high-quality training materials, including drills keyed to students’ abilities and instructional videos. The materials were developed by Khan Academy, the free, online education company used by more than 15 million students globally; all the content was written or approved by the College Board itself. And they are, like Khan Academy, completely free.

The unveiling occasioned the expected cheers and doubts, but to evaluate theKhan Academy’s “Official SAT Practice” resources one must understand that they are part of a much bigger plan. It’s a plan that may help get thousands of poor students on track to success. But it will also give the College Board an even larger role in America’s high schools and the lives of students.

In recent years, the College Board has started to envision itself as a force for social equality. Much of that evolution has been spearheaded by its president, David Coleman, who took over in 2012 and argues that Khan prep will help “level the playing field” for poor and underrepresented students. While large test-prep companies, including The Princeton Review (where I’ve worked as a tutor) and Kaplan, have for years provided reduced-cost test prep to hundreds of thousands of students through school districts and community programs, the Khan resources will make quality test prep even more accessible for those who cannot afford classes or tutors.

There’s no reason to doubt the sincerity of Coleman’s commitment to helping poor students. It’s important, however, to recognize that the one party that is certain to benefit quite handsomely by these efforts is the College Board.

The company wants schools to track students’ progress from eighth to 12th grade using the “SAT Suite of Assessments,” which will be largely paid for by schoolsand typically administered during the school day, thus ensuring high participation rates. All of the exams will be aligned with the redesigned SAT, which is slated to make its debut next spring. More school-day testing is bound to take time away from traditional instruction, as is Khan prep if schools make it part of the standard curriculum, which appears to be the College Board’s goal.

Since standardized tests are typically designed strictly to measure skills or knowledge, most poor, low-performing students probably won’t benefit from new exams—no matter how they are designed. That’s where test prep comes in. It’s no surprise that the College Board is, according to officials, piloting a program to train teachers to use Khan prep and conducting webinars for counselors on strategies for implementing SAT practice in schools.

If you ask Coleman, having students do Khan prep in school doesn’t detract from authentic learning. He believes that doing multiple-choice math and reading questions on screen and watching Khan’s YouTube videos constitute an “organic tool” that will work within the existing curriculum to develop academic skills. Meanwhile, Cynthia Schmeiser, who oversees assessment at the College Board, believes that “the sooner a student starts [using Khan prep], the more comfortable they’ll be on test day.”

These positions fly in the face of test-prep experts, who argue that the SAT is divorced from traditional school work because it is a high-stakes, time-pressured, multiple-choice exam. Tutors typically recommend intense, compact preparation that detracts as little as possible from other educational pursuits and takes months not years. As Brendan Mernin, a founding tutor at Noodle.com, put it, “The SAT is supposed to show what you got out of your schoolwork. It is not supposed to be the schoolwork.”

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