The Story Behind the SAT Overhaul


In July 2012, a few months before he was to officially take over as president of the College Board, David Coleman invited Les Perelman, then a director of writing at M.I.T., to come meet with him in Lower Manhattan. Of the many things the College Board does — take part in research, develop education policy, create curriculums — it is perhaps most recognized as the organization that administers the SAT, and Perelman was one of the exam’s harshest and most relentless critics. Since 2005, when the College Board added an essay to the SAT (raising the total possible score from 1,600 to 2,400), Perelman had been conducting research that highlighted what he believed were the inherent absurdities in how the essay questions were formulated and scored.

His earliest findings showed that length, more than any other factor, correlated with a high score on the essay. More recently, Perelman coached 16 students who were retaking the test after having received mediocre scores on the essay section. He told them that details mattered but factual accuracy didn’t. “You can tell them the War of 1812 began in 1945,” he said. He encouraged them to sprinkle in little-used but fancy words like “plethora” or “myriad” and to use two or three preselected quotes from prominent figures like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, regardless of whether they were relevant to the question asked. Fifteen of his pupils scored higher than the 90th percentile on the essay when they retook the exam, he said.

Right around the time Coleman was appointed as the board’s next president, he read an article about Perelman’s research in The New York Times and decided to reach out to him. “Somebody takes a whack at the SAT, so what?” Coleman said when I met him in his office at the College Board headquarters near Lincoln Center last month. “They get some media coverage, it’s not that interesting. But this was a guy who devoted his lifetime to work you care about” — teaching students how to write — “and then looks at an instrument meant to celebrate writing and — ” Coleman’s words trailed off. “I wanted to go beyond the news presentation of his claim,” he finally added, “to the depth of his claim.”

​Over the course of their two-hour conversation, Perelman told Coleman that he wasn’t opposed to an essay portion of the test, per se; he thought it was a good idea, if done well. But “when is there a situation in either college or life when you’re asked to write on demand about something you’ve never once thought about?” he asked. “I’ve never gotten an email from a boss saying: ‘Is failure necessary for success? Get back to me in 25 minutes?’ But that’s what the SAT does.” Perelman said that tutors commonly taught their students to create and memorize an all-purpose essay that contained the necessary elements for a top score — “a personal anecdote, a few historical references; Florence Nightingale seems a strangely popular reference.” When test day comes, they regurgitate what they’ve committed to memory, slightly reshaping depending on the question asked. But no one is actually learning anything about writing.

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Perelman was surprised, he told me, by the productive nature of their conversation, but ultimately he couldn’t imagine that much would come of it. The College Board was a huge nonprofit organization, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue (in part from the nearly three million SAT tests it administers to high-school students each year), and despite intense criticism in the past, it had done little, in Perelman’s estimation, to bring about meaningful change. “His heart is in the right place,” Perelman recalled thinking at the time. “David Coleman actually believes in education.” But trying to change the way the College Board does business, Perelman said, is “like trying to turn around the Titanic.” There was no way an institution as notoriously slow and defensive as Coleman’s was going to do that, no matter who was at the helm.

By the time he took over in October 2012, Coleman was well versed not just in Perelman’s critiques but also in a much wider array of complaints coming from all of the College Board’s constituencies: Teachers, students, parents, university presidents, college-admissions officers, high-school counselors. They all were unhappy with the test, and they all had valid reasons.

Students despised the SAT not just because of the intense anxiety it caused — it was one of the biggest barriers to entry to the colleges they dreamed of attending — but also because they didn’t know what to expect from the exam and felt that it played clever tricks, asking the kinds of questions they rarely encountered in their high-school courses. Students were docked one-quarter point for every multiple-choice question they got wrong, requiring a time-consuming risk analysis to determine which questions to answer and which to leave blank. Teachers, too, felt the test wasn’t based on what they were doing in class, and yet the mean SAT scores of many high schools were published by state education departments, which meant that blame for poor performances was often directed at them.

​An even more serious charge leveled at the test was that it put students whose families had money at a distinct advantage, because their parents could afford expensive test-prep classes and tutors. Several years ago, an exasperated Mitch Kapor, a founder of Lotus Software, co-wrote an op-ed in The San Francisco Chronicle suggesting colleges should require mandatory disclosure by students and parents of “each and every form of purchased help,” as a way to level the playing field.

Written By: TODD BALF
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  1. I’m afraid the problem goes much deeper than the SAT. The problem today is that most people don’t attend college to actually learn the required skills of a specific profession. There are of course a few exceptions like medical school and to some extent law school. But, these are exceptions to the rule. In practice most people study to earn a degree and not to learn certain skills. This is a huge problem since the reputation of the institution is more important than the actual quality of the studies.

    I’m not saying there aren’t colleges and universities out there who actually teach their students valuable skills and knowledge. But, from the student’s point of view the experience of actually learning something often seems to be of less importance than getting good grades. From where I’m standing it seems like many students regard college as a game that has to be won or beaten. Not, as a genuine learning or maturational process.

  2. … so they deduct a quarter-point for a wrong multiple choice answer, presumably there are 4 answers and a point if you’re correct.
    If that’s the case, there’s no need for a time-consuming risk-analysis: if you don’t know, always guess.
    Even if you have no idea whatsoever and any of the 4 answers might be correct, if you guess 4 times in a row your expectation is to get 1 right and 3 wrong, for a net score of +1/4 (versus 0 for not answering at all).
    It gets better if, as is usually the case, you can eliminate one or two of the answers.
    If they deducted 1/3 of a point for an incorrect answer, it’s still good to guess. With no idea whatsoever about the question, guessing gives the same net expectation (0) as not guessing; and if you do have preferences or can eliminate at least one answer, your expected score rises.

    If 1/2 point were deducted, it starts to get interesting, and you might have to engage in risk-analysis on individual questions: the correct strategy is you do not guess unless you can first absolutely eliminate at least one answer as definitely incorrect.

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