College Board’s Common Core Math SAT ‘Wordy Problems’ Hurt Low-Performing Students

Suzane Nazir uses a Princeton Review SAT Preparation book to study for the test on March 6, 2014 in Pembroke Pines, Florida.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

An ongoing Reuters investigation finds the College Board’s newly released Common Core-aligned SAT contains “wordy” math problems that could work against low-performing students, an outcome that contradicts the stated goals of the Board’s president, David Coleman.

Reuters observes in its latest installment of its investigation of the College Board:

About half the test-takers were unable to finish the math sections on a prototype exam given in 2014, internal documents reviewed by Reuters show. The problem was especially pronounced among students that the College Board classified as low scorers on the old SAT.

A difference in completion rates between low scorers and high scorers is to be expected, but the gap on the math sections was much larger than the disparities in the reading and writing sections. The study Reuters reviewed didn’t address the demographics of that performance gap, but poor, black and Latino students have tended to score lower on the SAT than wealthy, white and Asian students.

In May of 2013, Coleman – considered to be the “architect” of the Common Core standards prior to heading the College Board – said he would be using a new student data collection team to help him reach out to the “low-hanging fruit,” or low-income black and Latino students. Coleman welcomed to his data team members from President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign who would profile low-income students and assist in his social justice education goals.

Similarly, during a recent speech in March, Coleman reiterated his goal of “equal access” to higher education for English-language learners.

As Reuters observes, when Coleman’s College Board set out to redesign the SAT to align it with Common Core, the new exam was supposed to reflect more “real world applications” than the test’s prior versions.

“The new SAT would require them to ‘solve problems in rich and varied contexts,’” the news agency notes.

However, despite the results of the prototype exam two years ago, the College Board never made any changes and called its revamped SAT an “appropriate and fair assessment” that serves its goal of “equity and opportunity.”

“It’s outrageous. Just outrageous,” said Professor Anita Bright of the Graduate School of Education at Portland State University in Oregon. “The students that are in the most academically vulnerable position when it comes to high-stakes testing are being particularly marginalized.”

Reuters states that these “vulnerable” students include “recent immigrants and American citizens who aren’t native English speakers; international students; and test-takers whose dyslexia or other learning disabilities have gone undiagnosed.” The test’s “wordy math questions” are reportedly causing problems for these students.

“The problem is going to mostly affect English-language learners,” said Jamal Abedi, a University of California Davis professor with expertise in educational assessments. He added that these students might perform poorly “not because of their lack of math content knowledge but by the language burden.”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in academic year 2013-2014, English language learners accounted for 9.3 percent – or 4.5 million – of students in the United States.

However, Daniel Koretz, professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said students should be assessed on whether they can absorb college-level math.

“Some students will be disadvantaged, yes, but that’s not necessarily the wrong thing to do,” he said.

In response to Breitbart News’ request for comment, the College Board, which designs both the SAT and the Advanced Placement program, said, “We have no further comment beyond what’s included in the article, including the fact that completion rates on the new SAT math sections for students whose first or best language is not English are similar to what we see for all students.”

However, Reuters reports College Board spokesman Sandra Riley did not provide actual statistics on completion rates for the redesigned SAT to Reuters.

Some academic reviewers of the newly released SAT have been highly critical of the exam, states the news agency. Lecturer Dan Lotesto of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee said, regarding the math problems, he had “never encountered so many seriously flawed items” in the 20 years in which he had been reviewing math content for the College Board.

Questions about the completion rates for disadvantaged students comes on the heels of Reuters’ announcement in August that the College Board leaked hundreds of exam questions to the news agency.

The leak is “a problem of a massive level,” one that could “put into question the credibility of the exam,” said Neal Kingston, who directs the Achievement and Assessment Institute at the University of Kansas.

James Wollack, director of the Center for Placement Testing at the University of Wisconsin, described the situation of the leaked items as “very alarming, very concerning indeed.”

“Everyone will pull out all stops to try to compromise this test,” he said.

Later in August, the FBI seized computers and other materials from Manuel Alfaro, former executive director of assessment design and development at the College Board, in connection with the breach. On his LinkedIn account, Alfaro posted a letter to the heads of the departments of education of seven states that have decided to use the SAT as their accountability measure for high school students. Alfaro said he wanted to inform them “the College Board had made false claims in proposals it submitted in bids for assessment contracts with your states.”

In an email to the education chiefs of those states, Alfaro also said that, while an employee of the College Board, he “became aware of patterns of concealment, fabrication, and deception used by the College Board to misrepresent the SAT and PSAT.” He further alleged that the College Board didn’t follow the process to develop the SAT and PSAT that it publicly says it uses.

Alfaro maintains that the redesigned SAT “has a critical technical flaw that renders the test unfair.”

Writing at Truth in American Education, Jane Robbins, a fellow with American Principles Project, observes that the real problem with the redesigned SAT is its alignment with the Common Core standards. She writes:

The Common Core math standards are based on the idea that knowing math is insufficient; a student must be able to read a tome and apply math skills to the supposed “real-life” problem it presents. (The engineers who brought the Apollo 13 astronauts home on a crippled spacecraft somehow managed to apply their antiquated math education to a real-world problem, but pay no attention to that.) While the text-heavy approach may work for strong readers, turning a math test into a reading test creates unnecessary problems for students who traditionally don’t score as well on the SAT anyway.

Robbins continues Coleman’s “Common Core ideology” – now brought forward into the SAT – has been “destructive.” She continues:

The Common Core realignment of the SAT math section will hurt low-income students in other ways. In a Pioneer Institute report, mathematician James Milgram and testing expert Richard Phelps explained that aligning the SAT with Common Core essentially converts it from a test predicting college success to one that simply measures high-school achievement. These experts pointed out that an achievement test is less effective at identifying students with significant STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) potential who attend schools with inferior science and math programs. And the Common Core math standards – which stop with an incomplete Algebra II course – will ensure that many schools, especially those serving low-income students, will have such inferior programs.

“Having already lowered national test scores, increased the achievement gap, driven excellent teachers out of the profession, and now wrecked the SAT, it looks like Common Core is ahead of schedule,” Robbins concludes.

The SAT will be administered next on October 1.


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