Saturday, March 12, 2005

Standardized Testing Becomes A Bigger Pain In The Ass

Today's the day those poor high school students get to take the new-and-unimproved, analogy-free SAT. Perhaps you're from a foreign country and you don't know what the SAT is, so I'll explain. The SAT is the (supposedly) standardized test high school students have to take in order to get into college; the acronym used to stand for "Scholastic Aptitude Test," but apparently that's a little too cerebrally taxing for America's high school juniors and seniors, so now it just stands for "SAT." The SAT supposedly reflects how well students will do in college, but that's a crock. In reality, the test measures how well you can read and stay focused on incredibly tedious and banal passages (which, as it turns out, is a pretty useful college skill) and how well you fill in little bubbles with a number two pencil (which is not).

All in all, the SAT measures how well you take a standardized test — and, should you get into an Ivy League school, measures your worth as a human being compared to your classmates.

The updated SAT is an hour longer than its predecessor, mostly because they've added the mind-rotting SAT II: Writing test to the experience. If I ever go on a postal-worker style machine-gun rampage, the SAT II: Writing test will be the reason for it. The test is (was) divided into three sections, two of which involved your familiarity with "standard written English." They'd give you five versions of the same sentence, and you needed to choose the one that sounded like it came from a native English speaker, as opposed to Yoda. Example:

A) Jim went to the grocery store to buy a quart of milk.
B) Jim, having been going to the grocery store, bought milk, of which he bought a quart.
C) The grocery store to buy a quart of milk is where Jim went.
D) Jim the grocery store he went for to buy a quart of milk.
E) Jim, he went to buy milk; a quart he had bought at the grocery store.
Figure it out yet? It might not be a perfectly accurate example — ETS would probably use some ethnic name like Carlos or Lateesha to placate minority groups, and their weird-ass pluperfect participle fetish is much more pronounced than I made it seem — but you can tell why it's so hard for me to resist jumping up in the middle of the test and screaming, "You fucking morons! You speak English! You've been speaking it for like seventeen years! How the hell could you possibly get that wrong???"

So they added that to the SAT's. They also added the written exam from the SAT II: Writing test, where students have twenty minutes to write a three-to-five paragraph essay on an insipid topic like, "Change can be positive because..." Your essay is scored on a six point scale, relative to a base essay, the type of robotic acadmic Stepford essay college professors like, where comforting, recycled motifs and a vocabulary slightly too elevated for the topic obfuscate a total lack of original thought. Joyce, Faulkner, or Ellison would bomb the essay; the writers for USA Today would score a six out of six. I guess it's good to get prospective college students prepared and disillusioned early.

Finally, finally, finally, the writers of the SAT got rid of what's frequently termed "the dreaded analogy" section, replacing it with yet another passage on a topic no one could possibly care about. They probably figured that being able to infer the relationship between concepts was no longer a useful skill in today's hectic modern world, while being able to answer the perennial question "The author of Passage 1 would most likely agree with the author of Passage 2 on which of the following" is crucial.

The real problem with the SAT's is that they don't test enough. What colleges need is a test that'll tell them if so-and-so will show up to class hung over every day, or if he'll cover the fire alarm so he can smoke in a non-smoking dorm. I'd like to see a test that separates the students trying to learn and improve themselves from the kids who see college as a twenty-four hour social club. Not that these college admissions officers would care about things like that.