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Forest, Virginia, United States
A long time ago, my sophomore English teacher, Father William Campbell, saw something in my writing and predicted that I would someday become a newspaper columnist. He suggested the perfect title for my column--"Leaves of the Palm." Now that I have a little extra time on my hands I've decided to put Father Campbell's prediction to the test. I'm going to start using this blog site not just to reprint opinion pieces I've published elsewhere but to try to get more of my ideas and opinions out there. Feedback is welcome. To find out more about me, please check out my Web site: www.EdwardFPalm.com (Click on any of the photos below for an enlarged view.)

Monday, March 31, 2014

My Column for March 30, 2014

ED PALM | Standards and the new SAT

By Ed Palm
Saturday, March 29, 2014 

This column may get me labeled a “reactionary” — an extreme conservative committed to the status quo and opposed to social progress or change. That is because I’m wondering if the College Board would consider “reactionary” to be “esoteric” and would therefore exclude it from the new Scholastic Achievement Test.

I’ll reserve final judgment until the sample questions are released in April, but the new name alone gives me pause. The College Board has given up on trying to measure the aptitude for higher education — always a tricky business. Instead, they are going to try measuring achievement — what students have actually learned in high school. The promise is that the test will now be “relevant.” The problem is that students are not learning nearly what our college-bound students used to learn in high school. Even more troubling, I have to wonder if the new SAT represents a surrender to the sliding standards that have placed American education 17th among the developed countries of the world.

As it now stands, 20 percent of college freshmen nationwide have to start their college careers by taking remedial English or math or both. The percentage is closer to 50 percent in community colleges and uncompetitive state college campuses. Ask any professor if he or she considers today’s college freshmen to be as well prepared as those of his or her day. I certainly don’t. The majority of the students I taught in recent years had trouble with close reading and with constructing a reasonable line of argument.

One of the promises of the new SAT, of course, is that the reading selections and essay will address these problems. If so, I’ll endorse it. But I’m also troubled by the implication that the test will focus on the skills that students need to succeed in college today. And college, frankly, is not what it used to be. Over the years, in teaching English, my colleagues and I had to scale back on the amount of reading we assigned and the amount of in-class writing we required.

I personally have observed a telling example of how educational standards have slipped in my lifetime. Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, I have reconnected with three former Marines I served with in Vietnam. We correspond regularly by email. Two of us went on to college; the other two did not. But they are high school graduates, and they write better than many of the students I’ve taught in recent years. When we were young, moreover, virtually all Marines wrote coherent letters — not 140-character tweets or abbreviated text messages. We used to be able to count on high school graduates to be reasonably literate. Don’t bet on that today.

Another promise of the new test is that it will emphasize the sort of vocabulary commonly used in college courses — words such as “synthesis and empirical,” according to the board’s own website. All well and good, but I hope they don’t jettison the verbal analogies of old. A student ready for college, for instance, ought to be able to tell that reactionary is to progressive as conservative is to liberal. But I wouldn’t bet on that either.

The sort of analogy I just shared is predicated upon some familiarity with the political context in which the terms are commonly used — giving students from privileged backgrounds a clear advantage over underprivileged minorities. The College Board is now promising to level the playing field. The new test is being billed as free of cultural bias, but to what degree?

In my experience, as a former professor, a student who is largely ignorant of current events and of the issues dividing our country is not ready for college. A case in point would be the former student I mentioned in a past column — the one who thought Israel had attacked us on 9/11.

As the news reports have indicated, more and more colleges and universities are no longer requiring applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores. I do understand and support their rationale. No standardized test can make a completely accurate assessment of a student’s academic potential. Admissions officers should and do take a holistic approach. But a convenient collusion born of enlightened self-interest would also seem to be at play here. Our second- and third-tier institutions must compete, and settle, for today’s students as they find them. Organizations that design tests must accommodate that new reality or go out of business.

I am reminded of one of my favorite Doonesbury cartoons. It depicts a university president giving a commencement address and bragging that, unlike so many other colleges and universities, his has refused to lower its standards. I am proud, he says, that we have held firm.
The last panel depicts one lone graduate, amid a sea of empty chairs, saying, “Me too man!”

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