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The "New" SAT and the Movement Toward a National Curriculum

January 16, 2004

By Charles R. Lewis

Having taught SAT prep, I cringed when I saw a piece describing a current re-invention of that exam. The test has undergone numerous major revisions recently; all, in my view, diminished it. The test now will no longer measure reasoning ability, but rather assimilation of curricula. Its stated goal is the establishment of a "national curriculum" - one that, given close links between top SAT brass and chief instigators of the "No Child Left Behind" program, likely means that advocacy of that plan's radical agenda will replace sound reasoning as the key to SAT success.

The SAT's creators had of late given us score inflation, a "dumbing down" after years of plummeting results (a "kill-the-messenger" reaction), adaptations to feminist, environmentalist, and multiculturalist criticisms, and calculators.

Permitting calculators has had far-reaching effects. As the SAT goes, so go textbooks, curricula, and instruction. An offshoot of calculator approval is that American pupils cannot add, subtract, multiply, or divide. In fact, through the high school level, they do not even know their single digit "tables."

Salvaging some of the SAT's credibility at first was the fact that calculators presented answers in decimal form, while the test often gave these responses in other forms, such as fractions. Calculator-armed testees had to reconcile the forms. However, the emergence of calculators that give fractional answers has overcome much of this fortunate difficulty. And one need not even correctly interpret a calculator's output. The SAT's bubble-in section accepts a simple copying of the first four symbols on a calculator screen, even where that gives an incorrect round-off. Several other current SAT quantitative facets are similarly flawed.

We must view the "New SAT" project in the context of such revisions. Far from correcting past mis-steps, the current metamorphosis shifts the SAT's essence from aptitude exam to achievement test and adds an essay component.

The math component will embrace more topics. This supposedly will force schools to improve instruction. But the SAT tends simply to scratch the surface in the various topic areas. A mere trivial familiarity with a given concept is ordinarily sufficient. The changes may just lead to an increase in what is already going on - abandonment of comprehensive instruction in favor of superficial looks at ever more broadly dispersed topics.

In the verbal area, the analogy sections, which measure students' abilities to juxtapose and extrapolate relationships among concepts, will disappear,. As with quantitative comparisons (also kaput), a reduction in the number of examples could be justifiable, but their complete eradication is unsettling.

Prior editions measured conceptual comprehension divorced from disciplinary "jargon"; the new test will focus on academic terminology associated with (verbal or quantitative) concepts. Some examples I have seen in this realm involve "new math" verbiage. New math's complication of the simple has much to do with "why Johnny can't do math" (also why Johnny hates math and sees it as pointless). I perceive emphasis on math cant as counterproductive, and going pedantic in the verbal arena as analogously wrongheaded.

More troubling still is the essay component, especially in light of rhetoric about forcing schools to adopt a national curriculum and making the exam an instrument for social change. That the project's mastermind is a politician is scarcely of comfort.

That politician, Gaston Caperton II, former Governor of West Virginia and now president of the SAT's College Board, has long been closely associated with ex-Education Secretary, Richard Riley. Riley oversaw the Goals 2000 program, which, in 2001, morphed into the No Child Left Behind Act.

That Act, which places major components of national education policy in the hands of the Center for Civic Education (a non-competitively-bid agency that pushes a subtle anti-American agenda), promotes policies essentially identical to those of Riley's Department of Education. These policies include authoritarian central planning and the establishment of a national academic curriculum for grades K-12, a curriculum in which ideology pervades across the academic continuum.

That ideology embraces globalism, multiculturalism, radical environmentalism, and abandonment of national sovereignty. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is based on this curriculum, and the desire to score well on the NAEP, combined with the law's funding strings, compels conformity nationwide. Students' failure to exhibit "correct" attitudes on contentious political issues results in lower scores, and lower marks for the given state.

Under the SAT's new format, similar ideological considerations can bar students who write "outside the box" from pursuing higher education. In multiple-choice settings, it is relatively easy for a dissenting student to select the response that matches what a test's writers want expressed, even if that varies greatly from the student's opinion. In an essay, that student must choose between effectively arguing the merits of a position he or she abhors and expressing views that may terminate his education. As a writer who experienced repeated academic ostracism and rebuke for expressing essentially pro-American views in American classrooms as far back as the 1960's, I harbor grave doubts about the likely degree of objectivity that will accompany the grading of this essay portion.

As noted, the SAT already has greatly influenced instruction in this country for some time. Much of that influence has been positive; sound instruction, rigorous standards, disciplined classrooms, and tough grading and promotion policies have been the best producers of standardized test excellence. However, certain changes on the SAT have caused great harm. Tests like the Stanford 9 and NAEP have further altered the paradigm, rewarding perfunctory, out-of-sequence presentation of concepts and punishing sound conceptual development, and basing assessment on attitudes rather than reasoning.

The restructuring of the SAT as a tool of social engineering, the references to the imposition of a national curriculum (along with the SAT's unique position as a potential "gun-to-the-head" vis a vis enforcement of the alarming "national curriculum" to which it is evident the SAT's prime movers are referring), and the problematical introduction of an essay component, signal that the SAT is likely moving in the same direction. That movement is to be resisted vigorously.

[Charles Lewis is a former mathematics department chairman and charter school head who has authored several textbooks in the areas of mathematics and phonics.]

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Psychoanalyzing the Public

Wednesday, January 7, 2004
The New American
by Beverly K. Eakman

It had to happen. A taxpayer-funded study by the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Science Foundation (NIMH-NSF) announced last August that adherents to conventional moral principles and limited government are mentally disturbed.

NIMH-NSF scholars from the Universities of Maryland, California at Berkeley, and Stanford attribute notions about morality and individualism to "dogmatism" and "uncertainty avoidance." Social conservatives, in particular, were said to suffer from "mental rigidity," a condition that, researchers assert, is probably hard-wired, condemn­ing traditionalists to a lifelong, cognitive hell, with all the associated indicators for mental illness: "decreased cognitive function, lowered self-esteem, fear, anger, pessimism, disgust, and contempt."

The article is at: educationnews.org

Other articles by Beverly Eakman at: http://www.beverlye.com/

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