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Will the SAT Overhaul Help Achieve Equity?

The College Board, the organization behind the SAT, acknowledges that historically its tests have been biased in favor of the children of wealthy, well educated elites – those who live in the best zip codes, are surrounded by books, go to the best regarded schools (both public and private), enjoy summer enrichment programs, and can avail themselves of as much tutoring and SAT test-prep coaching as they need. That’s why, early last month, College Board president David Coleman announced that the SAT would undergo significant changes, with the aim of making it more fair and equitable for disadvantaged students.

Among the key changes, which are expected to take effect in 2016, are: the democratization of access to test-prep courses (by trying to make them less necessary and entering into an agreement with the Khan Academy to offer free, online practice problems*); ensuring that every exam include a reading passage from one of the nation’s “founding documents," such as the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights, or from one of the important discussions of such texts, such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s “Letter From Birmingham Jail”; and replacing “arcane 'SAT words' (‘depreciatory,’ ‘membranous’)," with words that are more “commonly used in college courses, such as ‘synthesis’ and ‘empirical.’” (See here.)

Will this help? Well, maybe, but the SAT’s long held -- but always elusive -- mission to help identify and reward merit, rather than just privilege, will only be met insofar as its creators can be sure that all students have had an equal opportunity to learn these particular vocabulary words and have read these particular “founding documents” and texts. That is, it comes down to a question of curriculum.

Curriculum and Equity

The connection between curriculum and equity first occurred to me when I was eight years old (though obviously not in those exact terms). For some reason, my school decided that all third graders needed to have an IQ test. I was sick that day, so one school holiday I found myself filling in bubbles alone in a classroom with Mrs. Beagles, the school’s assistant principal.

All was well until I got to one particular question. Since the test designers couldn’t be sure we could read well, many of the questions were in picture form. This one included a series of line drawings. As I recall, the first was a drawing of a boy in a ski jacket standing on a beach; the second showed a boy in swim trunks and a beach ball standing in the snow near a snowman; the third had the same swim-trunked, beach ball kid standing in sand near a big cactus; and the fourth had the ski jacket boy standing near the snowman. The question was: Which one didn’t belong?

Although I knew the “right” answer, I found myself wondering how they could just assume that I should. Having never left the tropical island of St. Croix, I had not yet been in winter or seen snow or a snowman. And, although some cactus varieties could be found out on the island’s East End, we had no real desert either. Our textbooks had not yet covered the relevant units on physical geography, and my book-loving father had only allowed a television into our house about six months beforehand. I then started wondering how many of my classmates might have thought that the ski jacket was some elaborate water flotation outfit, and how many would have been confused because we all regularly swam at East End beaches with cacti in plain sight. For that matter, what about kids on the mainland who grew up in cities or in the Midwest and who had never been to a beach or seen a desert?  

Irate over the unfairness of it all, I complained to Mrs. Beagles, who replied, “Just do the best that you can," and returned to grading papers.

I found myself thinking about this episode as I read a very interesting 2012 paper by Santelices and Wilson, whose research gave credence to an earlier paper by Freedle (also here) — the upshot of which is that the SAT Verbal continues to be biased against poor and minority students in a very particular way. That is, test takers who are African American, Hispanic-American, Asian American, or White from low-income households tend to do disproportionately well on the “hard” questions and disproportionately poorly on the “easy” ones.

In his 2003 Harvard Educational Review article, Freedle explains:

A culturally based interpretation helps explain why African American examinees (and other minorities) often do better on many hard verbal items but do worse than matched-ability Whites on many easy items. To begin with, easy analogy items tend to contain high-frequency vocabulary words while hard analogy items tend to contain low-frequency vocabulary words (Freedle & Kostin, 1997). For example, words such as “horse," “snake," “canoe," and “golf” have appeared in several easy analogy items. These are words used frequently in everyday conversations. By contrast, words such as “vehemence," “anathema," “sycophant," and “intractable” are words that have appeared in hard analogy items, and do not appear in everyday conversation (Berger, 1977). However, they are likely to occur in school-related contexts or in textbooks.
In other words, kids who are somewhat outside of the cultural mainstream do less well on items built around assumptions about common knowledge – the words and ideas that are “used frequently in everyday conversations."  But what if your language or culture or social standing diminishes the chances that you actually engage in everyday conversations about golfing or canoes? In that case, it makes perfect sense to expect that you would do better on the “harder” -- even the “arcane” -- school-related items that are built around the words, ideas, and texts that you have actually been taught.

Or, put another way: Assessments of student learning are neither fair nor valid unless they measure only the content and skills that students have actually been given the opportunity to learn. And the only way to do that, of course, is to know what they have been taught – that is, in the presence of a defined curriculum.

The Problem with Curriculum

There are some very good reasons why the United States, unlike most of the world’s highest-performing nations, has avoided adopting a national curriculum for all of these years. As David K. Cohen has noted:

For school systems around the world, the infrastructure commonly includes student curricula or curriculum frameworks, exams to assess students’ learning of the curricula, instruction that centers on teaching that curriculum, and teacher education that aims to help prospective teachers learn how to teach the curricula. The U.S. has had no such common and unifying infrastructure for schools, owing in part to fragmented government (including local control) and traditions of weak state guidance about curriculum and teacher education.
Another huge issue is that “curriculum” has become a catch-all that describes everything from general performance standards all the way to student texts with scripted daily lesson plans. Thus, in any given discussion about the role of curriculum in a well functioning school system, it is very likely that the discussants are actually talking past each other. This has led to many unintentionally amusing statements, responses and counter-responses, as each “side” tries to clarify what it and others are actually trying to promote and/or oppose.

In terms of equity concerns, I think that E.D. Hirsch has it exactly right. That is, we need to make sure that every American student – regardless of economic, geographic, racial or ethnic background – is provided with a “coherent, cumulative, and content-specific core curriculum” (see here, but also here, here, here and here).

As Hirsch uses the term, the “curriculum” should provide enough guidance to teachers to ensure that what is taught will prepare students for the learning that comes next, while remaining flexible enough for teachers (or schools or districts) to decide for themselves which specific materials and instructional approaches best meet the needs of any particular set of students. He uses the term “core” to mean both that which is most important, which should be taught in common to all students, as well as that which is foundational to the more personalized courses of study that students may choose for themselves during their high-school years. Thus, Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Sequence, which covers pre-K to 8th grade, could also be described as a curriculum framework or syllabus – a coherent “outline of the subjects in a course of study."

It is no accident that Hirsch’s theory of action also squares with a great deal of national and international research suggesting that schools with greater curricular and instructional coherence achieve greater improvement in student performance (here, here and here).

So what might this look like in practice? In a 2003 Educational Researcher article, Lisa Delpit has given a rationale for why schools need to provide all students with access to “the culture of power”:

In my work in dozens of successful classrooms, effective teachers of low-income students of color take every opportunity to introduce children to complex material. While children are learning to “decode," teachers read complex information to children above their reading level and engage in discussions about the information and the advanced vocabulary they encounter. Students are involved in activities that use the information and vocabulary in both creative and analytical ways, and teachers help them create metaphors for the new knowledge that connects it to their real lives. Students memorize and dramatize material that involves advanced vocabulary and linguistic forms. Students are engaged in thematic units that are ongoing and repeat important domain knowledge and develop vocabulary through repeated oral use. Students are asked to explain what they have learned to others, thus solidifying new knowledge. Not only do the teachers and schools who are successful with low-income children practice these strategies, but some other researchers (Beck et al., 2002; Hirsch, 2003; Stahl, 1991; Sternberg, 1987, to name but a few) have documented the efficacies of the strategies as well. Successful instruction is constant, rigorous, integrated across disciplines, connected to students’ lived cultures, connected to their intellectual legacies, engaging, and designed for critical thinking and problem solving that is useful beyond the classroom…

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Will the new SAT – or, for that matter, the new Common Core State Standards, which David Coleman also had a large hand in crafting – lead us toward this vision of educational opportunity? That is yet to be seen, but I would have much more confidence in the outcome if each state department of education had begun with a focus on teaching to the new standards, rather than just testing them. Where are the rich curriculum resources and professional development opportunities that would allow this vision to take hold? And, failing this, what exactly is it that we propose to measure?

- Burnie Bond

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* Paradoxically, although the data confirm the expected class-based differences in the use of test prep courses, it should be noted that “blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites from comparable backgrounds to utilize test preparation. The black-white gap is especially pronounced in the use of high school courses, private courses and private tutors." See here for more on this.

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