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March 18, 2014 at 2:28 PM

Guest: Playing by the rules of the SAT game

Dennis McDuffie

Dennis McDuffie

On the surface, the SAT makes sense. In an era where standardized testing has become the focal point of American education, requiring tests for college admission seems logical. But what does this exam really measure?

Some universities argue that SAT scores directly correlate with success in college, but far too many students are exceptions to this generalization. The test material measures how well students can follow the rules of a game, which is not relevant to success beyond the testing room.

Unlike college, the test requires little critical thinking and primarily assesses students’ ability to withstand six hours of purposefully deceiving questions. Those who can readily detect deceptive responses are not necessarily any smarter than those who fall for the occasional trick. I can testify to this statement from my own experience.

After three SAT tests and three SAT subject tests, I have both lost and won in this game. I took the SAT last May and again in June, and my cumulative score increased an insignificant 10 points the second time. My scores were well above average, but I did not attain the level necessary for the highly selective colleges on my list.

Using the typical method of practice tests and review books, I prepared more than 30 hours for these first two tests. Knowing that I needed higher scores to be admitted to my preferred colleges, I prepared differently for a third exam in December. I spent a total of four hours studying for the test during the six-month interim, working briefly with an experienced SAT tutor who provided advice and strategies for conquering the test. Rather than focusing on the test’s content, I started playing by the rules of the game. As a result, my December cumulative score increased 250 points, or 13 percent, from June.

I question what the SAT truly measures: aptitude for college or aptitude to game a system. In my case, learning the game resulted in a critical difference in my college applicant profile and more merit scholarship money. I benefited from access to a tutor, but I empathize with others who are bereft of such privileges. Considering that the students who most need scholarship money are least likely to have access to tutoring, the problem becomes even more significant.

The College Board’s current overhaul of the SAT means test writers and academics alike are finally addressing some of the exam’s egregious flaws. The real solution to these issues, however, is to do away with standardized testing altogether. Obviously colleges must require some form of standardized material when considering a student for admission, but such materials should come in the form of projects that provoke critical thinking and encourage students to demonstrate individuality and creativity. These projects could be completed under monitored conditions in schools and easily aligned with the Common Core standards, which have already been adopted by 45 states.

As the system exists right now, test scores often determine whether a college will even consider other information about a student. Colleges tell me that I am more than a number my personality, academic accomplishments, essays and extra-curricular achievements are considered for admission as well as my scores. But given the weight that unreliable SAT scores bear on my applicant profile, I am far from convinced.

My score has given me the opportunity to attend a selective college, but many others are still left out of the SAT game.

Dennis McDuffie, 17, is a senior at Richland High School in Richland, Wash.

Comments | More in Guest opinion, Opinion | Topics: guest opinion, higher ed, SAT

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