Recently announced changes in the college SAT test have elicited all sorts of opinions from experts, lay-people, and students. Some laud the changes, and some decry them. Most everyone agrees that change was needed, but it’s also clear that modifying the tests was a business-based decision to compete with the more popular ACT. The testing of college aptitude isn’t just a means of judging students’ capabilities: it’s also a billion-dollar business.
One change involves dropping the essay requirement (the essay will now be optional). As a person who enjoys good writing, I also realize the limitations imposed on professionals who are less than literate. A research scientist must be able to clearly communicate their experiments and results, and write scientific papers. Investigative reporters must ably report their findings. Company managers must convey messages to tens or hundreds of employees. On and on it goes. Strong writing skills are critical to professionals (although many rely heavily on very literate secretaries or assistants).
At Time.com, Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College (on the Hudson River, north of Kingston), said, “The one major reform in the new SAT seems to be the dropping of a required essay. This is ironic because the one thing colleges need to know in their admissions process is how well a student can think, construct an argument, and persuade. Asking a student to sit down and write essays in an examination setting might be an excellent way to discover an applicant’s command of language and thought. This one potentially useful piece of evidence has been made optional.”
A Massachusetts high school guidance counselor criticized the vocabulary of the SAT itself (the instructions and guidelines): “It’s a measure of the vocabulary you hear at home, so people who comefrom a home that doesn’t use that kind of vocabulary are at a disadvantage.”
That’s a troubling viewpoint. The answer is not lowering the test’s vocabulary to accommodate college-bound students. Ignoring the test for a moment, consider other arenas: how will those same people, from the protective bubble of their home vocabulary, ever enjoy the classics of literature, or plays by Shakespeare, or commentary by our most eminent and learned writers. How will they comprehend documents written by our country’s founders, or legal papers, congressional bills, and tax forms? Those are all things they might be doing in some phase of college life, or in real life. We’re doing no one any favors by selling them short with low expectations.
Outside of those born into money or who win the lottery, success in life or business is generally attained through hard work, self-motivation, persistence, and education. There are no guarantees, of course, but absent some of those factors, the pairing of any two still allows for some degree of success.
Although I love being progressive and looking forward, my opinion here is driven by looking back at life in the North Country. What follows is not a commentary on how the good-old-days were better, but how rural living carries inherent difficulties, things that need to be somehow overcome.
A typical North Country example? Going to school … in this case, better described as getting to school.
In 1920 in Jay (Essex County), following what was termed a blizzard, school closure seemed a foregone conclusion. But in the storm’s wake, the local schoolmarm strapped on a pair of snowshoes, slogged to school, and kept the educational system moving forward.
Following a similar storm in 1928 in the Keene area, where sleighing was the primary mode of winter transportation, students resorted to snowshoes and skis in order to attend school.
In 1936, in Mexico, on Lake Ontario’s western shore, a local teacher snowshoed a mile to school on days when no cars or horses were available for transportation.
Even as recent as 1952, when roads hadn’t been plowed in the Lowville area, it was noted in newspapers that students during the winter, “… either waded or went to school by snowshoes. Their teacher used snowshoes all winter.”
If children and teachers were once so incentivized just to reach the school building where they could continue learning, there must be ways for modern educators to improve the system without lowering educational standards. Here’s hoping that’s what these changes accomplish.
Today we have safe transportation to schools, and constant weather reports to aid decisions about school closings. Those are real improvements, but let’s remember that in some applications (like school examinations), easier isn’t always better.
Lowering the test criteria is not the same as lifting the student. And the notion of making tests easier deviates from the concept of working hard for something—the satisfaction, the true sense of accomplishment, and the resulting incentive to do more. Long ago, those were the basics of rural living.
New is good, but so are some of our oldest values.