The College Board is dumbing down its SAT test again — doing no one any favors

The College Board is dumbing down its SAT test again — doing no one any favors

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A high schooler could have predicted this: On Feb. 5, Dartmouth College conceded that, after four years of admitting students in the dark, it needs mandatory standardized testing after all.

Weeks later Yale and, on Tuesday, Brown followed the lead of their smaller Ivy League sibling.

Other top-ranked universities — MIT, Georgetown, University of Florida, Georgia Tech, Purdue University, the US Air Force Academy, West Point, etc. — are already test-mandatory.

It’s good to hear about the flip-backs, but there’s troubling news, too: The testing itself is being dumbed down, even as a new digital-only version becomes mandatory on Saturday.

Why are schools returning to standardized testing? That’s obvious: School grades are inflated to the point of uselessness, essays can be bought online (or generated by AI), and teacher recommendations are often just a reflection of applicants’ ability to please.

Those disgruntled with what standardized tests expose will continue to recite the usual invalid arguments against them, but even back in 2014, world-renowned cognitive scientist Steven Pinker showed that SAT scores, “as far up the upper tail as you go, predict a vast range of intellectual, practical, and artistic accomplishments.”

In “a large sample of precocious teenagers identified solely by high performance on the SAT,” he added, these kids “not only excelled in academia, technology, medicine, and business” when they grew up, “but won outsize recognition for their novels, plays, poems, paintings, sculptures, and productions in dance, music, and theater.”

It’d be tempting to feel vindicated and add this to the left’s ever-growing list of “I told you so” tales, from #DefundthePolice to sanctuary cities.

But wait. Just as top colleges are getting courageous enough to say they really do need standardized tests to identify top students, the College Board, maker of the SAT, is sabotaging itself.

On Saturday, it’ll introduce “digital adaptive testing” for the SAT in the United States.

The test will become online-only and “adaptive”: Depending how a student performs in the first half, different questions will be presented in the second half.

By estimating each student’s ability early, the test can subsequently skip questions that are too difficult or too easy, with corresponding adjustment in scoring, thereby becoming, it is claimed, more efficient.

The alarming problem is its assurance that in developing digital adaptive testing, “we remove items that show significant DIF (Differential Item Functioning) by race/ethnicity, gender, or English as first language in alignment with industry best standards.”

In other words, the board aims to dumb down the test to reduce outcome differences by race and gender.

Indeed, DIF has become an albatross to testing in recent decades as “equity,” or imposed equal outcomes by race, became a sacred cow.

Don’t like what the thermometer tells about your patient? Toss the thermometer!

Consequently, educators have noted a stealth dumbing down of the SAT, on top of more publicized dumbing-downs like the removal of analogies in 2005 and penalties for guessing in 2014.

This dumbing down caused a “ceiling effect,” whereby top and merely solid students — those whom selective colleges most need to tell apart — are no longer differentiated by the test: They all got top scores!

Thus, at least half of Harvard students’ SAT math scores lie in the narrow 10-point range between 790 and 800, well within the SAT’s standard error of measurement, so that the SAT in effect says they scored the same.

Yet there is huge variation in mathematical aptitudes at Harvard, accommodated by 9 different starting math courses, from Math M (high-school math) to Math 55 (described as the hardest undergraduate math class in the country).

SAT’s ceiling effect is just as bad at Stanford (half the students also scoring between 790 and 800 in Math) and MIT (half scoring exactly 800 in math).

Rooting out hard questions just because they correlate with race isn’t the College Board’s only “equity” agenda: In 2019, it introduced its Environmental Context Dashboard, a facially race-neutral racial proxy nonetheless meant to help colleges achieve melanin diversity.

That offering was withdrawn under withering criticism, but the company is quietly marketing a reincarnation, Landscape.

The College Board serves an important public purpose.

Colleges, especially top ones, need the SAT to identify students who will give America the next generation of innovations, discoveries and medical cures.

The SAT was made to facilitate academic meritocracy, and it did that well.

To stay true to its core mission, the College Board must stand by that mission.

Wai Wah Chin is the founding president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance Greater New York and an adjunct fellow of the Manhattan Institute.

Wai Wah Chin

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