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Common Core and the New SAT

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The hugely controversial Common Core initiative is at least partly responsible for the latest revamp of the SAT college entrance exam. This puts great pressure on non-Common Core states, private schools, and homeschoolers to comply with national standards to keep students from doing poorly on the new Common Core–aligned SAT.

There have been many changes made to the SAT since its creation in 1926, such as the elimination of antonym questions in 1994 and the addition of the essay portion in 2005. More recently, the use of calculators has been permitted. The changes announced last week are just as specific; they include reverting back to the 1600 scoring scale and making the essay portion optional.

One of the goals of College Board president David Coleman is to more closely align the test with current high-school curricula. And the curriculum the folks over at College Board are referring to is Common Core. Coleman was one of the architects of Common Core, and took over the presidency of the College Board in May 2012. “The Common Core provides substantial opportunity to make the SAT even more reflective of what higher education wants,” Coleman said.

As the Washington Post reported: “The SAT’s writers appear to be doing two things: changing what it tests; and making it easier. . . . It’s no accident that this push comes from a College Board President who helped produce the K-12 Common Core standards, which aim to establish a national grade-school curriculum.”

The “making it easier” component is consistent with the standardization of mediocrity that Common Core national standards and tests represent. AEI’s Rick Hess calls it the Common Core-ification of the SAT. One of the major new changes to the SAT includes eliminating difficult words. Hess gives examples such as “punctilious” and “phlegmatic.” “I’m not sure,” Hess writes, “I regard these words as all that ‘obscure.’ And, in any event, I don’t know how you make a test more rigorous by dumbing down expectations for vocabulary.”

This is precisely the type of dumbing-down Dr. Sandra Stotsky warned about in her many critiques of the literary content — or lack thereof — of Common Core. Stotsky warned that college readiness will decrease as a result of Common Core English Language Arts (ELA) standards, which include a marked shift from fiction in favor of informational texts. That decrease in college readiness, she argues, is due to the simplicity of such informational texts. “By reducing literary study,” Stotsky notes, “Common Core decreases students’ opportunity to develop the analytical thinking once developed in just an elite group by the vocabulary, structure, style, ambiguity, point of view, figurative language, and irony in classic literary texts.”

Common Core includes an implicit reduction in the variety and difficulty of vocabulary by over-emphasizing informational texts (70 percent of a teacher’s instructional materials must be derived from informational texts by the end of high school). The new SAT revamp is explicitly reducing the level of vocabulary it expects college-aspiring students to grasp.

There is massive opposition to Common Core from parents, teachers, and taxpayers. Even the teachers’ unions have voiced opposition to the assessments and implementation. With colleges increasingly questioning the efficacy of the SAT (it has lost market share to the ACT, colleges report it fails to reflect student ability, etc.), perhaps this alignment to Common Core will further motivate universities to disregard the test altogether, or to discard it in favor of other assessment instruments.

Whatever happens, one thing is sure: The homogenizing of American education continues.

 - Lindsey M. Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education at the Heritage Foundation.

Originally appeared in The National Review

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