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OPINION - A dumbing down

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU)  Many college-bound kids in the Midwest take the ACTS. The other college exam - the SATs - are dominant on the coasts.

I remember taking mine... twice... and I remember the scores, too. 1150 the first time (which is considered average); 1245 the second time (above average).

Today comes news that the SAT is being dumbed down. The essay is gone. Easier words will be used in the verbal section of the test. The "guessing penalty", where one-quarter of a point gets deducted from each wrong multiple choice answer to discourage guessing, is being eliminated. A perfect score, 1,600, will become much more common.

The SATs have always been unfairly criticized, although they've served a useful purpose. They've been the best way for colleges to compare students from vastly different backgrounds and very different high school experiences. How should the admissions office compare a student from a dirt poor school district with a private prep school applicant? The SAT offers a good comparison. Not all school districts are the same. Not all "A"s are equal.

Some have claimed the test is racist, loaded up with words that an inner city student would never come across. Hogwash. An educated person has a vocabulary that allows them to express themselves. The verbal section of the test mostly separates those who read for pleasure and those who don't. Reading is the ultimate vocabulary builder. Math, of course, can't be racist. Two plus two equals four in English, Spanish or Ebonics.

There's also the falsehood of some students being bad test-takers. This is the excuse of the unprepared. Students who know their stuff take tests with quiet confidence. The ones who freeze up are the ones who know they're not going to do very well. 

What's being lost is academic rigor. Anything that's perceived as difficult must be attacked and discredited. There's no sense of students needing to reach beyond themselves to achieve a difficult goal. Instead the goalposts must be moved closer. There are no benefits to this, except pumping up someone with a false sense of self-esteem. What's the value of letting someone think they're smart when they aren't?

Chris Conley

Image: Students taking a test at the end of the summer term 2005 via Wikicommons.com