Countering a Bad Article about SAT Test-Makers

One SAT prep tutor's response to a bad article about SAT test-makers.

A parent alerted me to this article from an otherwise esteemed SAT Prep tutor.  Below is my reply to one important snippet of his piece:

"The companies that design standardized tests are extremely good at writing questions so that students who can’t figure out the answer will be misled into liking a wrong answer.

The College Board, for instance, doesn’t just randomly generate wrong answers and then sit back and twiddle its evil institutional thumbs, hoping that you’ll do it a favor and pick one. It’s much too evil an institution for that…

This teaching is not helpful, and likely hurtful to students adopting it.  A characterization of the College Board's appointed test-makers as desiring to mis-lead students is untrue.  The test-makers (since 1947 the College Board has contracted ETS to create the SAT) do not mislead.  They create plausible-yet wrong answers that have some support. 

In math, for example, two, three, or even all four of the wrong answers are the likely result of a wrong step the student might have taken.  "Add five" instead of "subtract five" and "30" becomes a plausible answer rather than the right answer "20".   Solve for "x" instead of "x/3" and "60" becomes a plausible wrong answer rather than the right answer "20".  The test-makers do not give instruction to mislead students.  Students who do the math without care, or without full understanding, TAKE steps that lead to wrong answers.

In the SAT's Critical Reading section, the testmakers again create plausible answers, rooted somewhere in the passage the students have before them.  Wrong answers often adhere to mis-interpreting a word, not understanding a sentence, not recognizing an author's tone, or making a wrong interpretation on a paragraph.  None of these thoughts are foisted on students by the test or the test-makers.  These are errors that the testmakers expect many students to make. Were the test-makers to create only wrong answers that have no plausibility, the SAT would be a silly test.  It would be akin to asking "what was the type of literature Carlo most wanted to read when he turned 11 years old?" and having the choices:

A) science fiction

B) rhinoceros

C) gravy

D) Bulgaria

E) ceiling fan.

Maybe even "ceiling fan" should be stricken from these choices as too "misleading," because it ALSO is a two-word phrase and the test-makers might be accused of misleading students by including it.  Or perhaps "ceiling fan" should be stricken because in at least one sci-fi novel there was a ceiling fan that created a vortex that sucked the protagonists higher and nearly consumed them.   Or was that even science fiction?, since it came from a fantasy novel set in 1960s England
(Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). 

Tempting-but-wrong answers are NOT the product of test-makers who desire to mislead students.

Nor are they the product of "evil".  That characterization of The College Board is even worse. The College Board goes out of its way to be fair to all American students.  It commissions ETS to be exacting with its test.    ETS eliminates questions that have a likely bias, and it uses meticulous experimental testing to make sure there is one good answer and four inferior answers for each question that finally appears on the test.   The SATs are probably the most meticulously-designed tests in the world.  For The College Board to besmirch its well-crafted gems with the appearance of manipulation is ludicrous.  For educators to call The College Board an evil institution is short-sighted.

"Misled" and "evil" are instead a few educators' attitudes.  They smack of prejudice, and perhaps their own manipulative-ness, towards an appealing agenda of their own.  Perhaps "fighting an evil monster" appeals to tutors trying to attract clients.  I like to think that's unnecessary for mature 16 year-olds (and their parents) who know the importance of the SAT.

I coach SAT prep for a Test Prep specialty firm called Ivy Bound / Rising Stars.  Our students succeed in part because we do NOT ask them to think inside the mind of the test-maker, or predict what other less-successful students would choose and then choose some other answer.  Instead, just ANSWER THE QUESTION.   Also, Ivy Bound instructors will not tell our students that The College Board is an evil institution.  They administer tests that create a standard under which all students can display their academic knowledge and resourcefulness.  That's a GOOD thing.  If there's any "evil" in college admissions, it's the non-meritocratic "primping, poise, and pedigree", that the College Board's use of the SAT largely replaced.    Ivy Bound / Rising Stars tutors urge our students to embrace that there is no outside barrier to a great SAT score.

To instead read that there is an "evil institution" behind the test would be very depressing, and I hope parents who see this language keep it from their students.   Tutors teaching this should be quarantined.  I know of nothing more depressing in K-12 education than the thought that there are people trying to thwart my success.  

"My prior skills, enhanced by new skills and knowing the test, will lead me to a high score.  I am undeterred".  Students should expect that attitude from their SAT tutor.

Ivy Bound 107 Fenn Rd.  Newington CT 06111 or e-mail msg@ivybound.net

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.


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