The New SAT: Dumb and Dumber Was Ahead of its Time

By Perry Kalmus

Perry Kalmus is a graduate of Williams College and the Lawrenceville School and the President of the Princeton Education Network, a successful SAT and College Admissions consulting firm based in Princeton, NJ and Beverly Hills, CA . 

If Jim Carey were talking to College Board President David Coleman, his now-famous line would have read something like this: “Just when I thought you couldn’t possibly be any dumber, you go and do something like this… and prove me completely wrong!”

I just concluded watching the live video stream of the College Board’s presentation on the new SAT and I stand here completely aghast, flabbergasted, disenchanted, disconcerted… oh never mind, those words are apparently no longer relevant to America’s future. Let me dumb it down for America’s youth. I stand here sad, mad, shocked, and confused. There we go. Much better. Now even our best and dumbest can understand what I am writing.

My name is Perry Kalmus and I am a graduate of Williams College and The Lawrenceville School. Full disclosure: I run the Princeton Education Network, a very successful SAT prep company based in Princeton, NJ and in Beverly Hills, CA. We are the only academically-based test prep company that we have encountered (And believe me, we hope more exist! Sadly, we feel like Will Smith in I Am Legend). My mother founded the company almost 20 years ago with a purely academic approach to the test. Why? Because quite frankly, it was actually an academic exam, testing some really great skills that one ought to have picked up in high school and that one needs to succeed in college and beyond. Can you read for critical information? Do you know your basic grammar?  Do you know how to construct a basic argumentative essay? Have you developed core math skills? The approach our company takes is so simple and obvious that it is sadly little practiced amongst the plethora (oops, that means surfeit…oops again! That means a lot) of SAT companies who capitalize on parent naiveté about the college admissions process: We ACTUALLY teach those skills. We do not believe in the tricks, gimmicks and guessing approaches of the big companies because we do not believe you can “beat” the test. We do, however, believe you can master the skills necessary to succeed on it.

So why am I so upset about these new changes? I can promise you they will not affect my business, which will likely continue to grow. They will also do nothing to stop the test prep companies that College Board president David Coleman disdains (does not like) so much. If he wanted to curb the test prep epidemic, he would actually focus on improving teaching, not partnering with a test-prep company.

Let’s start with a different question: what made the current version of the SAT so great? First, it tests critical reading skills, which, in America, function comfortably somewhere between awful and miserable (Ranked 19th in the world). If you don’t know what you just read, how can you possibly understand it? It was hard to tell from the presentation, but it sounds like the reading should stay roughly that way with the new exam, so I’ll move on.

Second, the SAT tests student capacity for the English language, also known as vocabulary. Scrapping the vocab section of this test is an abomination (outrage). Why is it that we should pander to the idea that students do not use big words later in life? Why is it that we should acquiesce to the concept of a dumber America? Mr. Coleman is right on one matter: too many kids resort to vocab lists and we fully agree that those are ineffective. It is our stance that since ETS (the writers of the test) finds most of the vocabulary seen on the SAT from the many novels studied in our nation’s classrooms, reading those novels and paying attention to those words (and why the author chose them. i.e. why did she use ‘indignant’ over ‘angry’?) is the best way to develop a robust vocabulary. The answer to forcing development over memorization lies with our teachers, and scrapping the sentence completion entirely is a cowardly move that demeans the value of a great education.

Are the comments of the esteemed College Board President not an insult to the amazing Malcolm Gladwell who deigned to use the following words in just a handful of pages of David and Goliath: Relented, Indignation, Valor, Apprehension, Confronted, Decimated, Folly, Daunting, Audacious, Imperturbability, Nonchalance, Indefatigable

If we are to agree that “esoteric” vocabulary is no longer relevant, then are we left to leave a legacy of novels no better than the Fifty Shades of Gray? Oh, how Dickens, Austen, and Shakespeare must be turning in their graves!

But eliminating this section elucidates (highlights) an even more ominous (worrying) problem in America. It is contributing to the annihilation (destruction) of our incredible language. Language is one of the most beautiful forms of expression on earth and we are blessed with one in particular that is both diverse and wonderful. To tacitly promote that learning this language is unnecessary is to cripple our youth. Since when is “synthesis” a more relevant word to our lives? I have had a number of jobs in fields ranging from Finance to Hollywood to Hospitality to Education to Tech to Golf course maintenance, and I cannot recall that word being so “popular”, if used at all. Mark Twain cogently noted that “the difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” One of the amazing things about the SAT was that it forced students to engage with English. Now, we are leaving that engagement up to students (and our education system that continually fails them) and after observing over 12,000 students who have come through our company, I can safely say that we are doomed in that department.

The grammar. They got rid of the grammar?! This… now THIS is truly disheartening. Having worked with so many students at some of the best schools in America, I can tell you that statistically very few know their grammar. Most of our students attend the Ivies or top tier schools. This situation is unacceptable.

Now at PEN, we developed a unique system for learning grammar that students can actually enjoy and consequently embrace. The result is an infinitesimally small segment of our population that actually knows grammar and can write well.

To the world of education, scrapping this section of the SAT is tantamount to an act of perfidy (treason) on the part of the College Board. People need to know their grammar. Period. Has the College Board studied the writing of today’s high school student? Has it actually analyzed the essay section of the test these last 8 years? Has anyone sitting on the decision-making committee for the new test ever read an unedited college essay? Adjectives I would use to describe the state of writing in America would be horrible, shameful, disgraceful, disappointing, and pathetic. And that is being kind. As mentioned before, we work with the best and the brightest students in this country and the students who can write well are very few and far between.

And why is the essay optional? That is preposterous and only going to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. If one is looking to attend a top tier school in this country, optional means required, so in that sense, those students will be forced to engage with writing no matter what. But for those looking at tier 2 and 3 schools, giving them the option to opt out of the essay is worsening the problem of writing in our schools and simultaneously releasing teachers of their obligation to teach the elements of fine writing that college professors not only demand, but expect.

How are any of these changes remaining faithful to the integrity of education?

Last and certainly not least, getting rid of the guessing penalty is perhaps the most egregious decision from the standpoint of education. Why are we promoting guessing? Why are we not demanding of our students that they learn the skills necessary to KNOW why they are choosing a particular answer? Why are we rewarding someone who had a great guessing day? Is that “indicative of future college success,” Mr. Coleman? One of the great things about the SAT as it currently stands is that it requires students to actually know the answer to a question. Removing that requirement is turning our backs on education.

I am so dismayed by Mr. Coleman and the decisions of his regime. I understand that he runs a business and must align his test closer to the ACT because the ACT has become the more popular test, but in doing so, he has eliminated a lot of the facets of the exam that made it so great, the facets that truly tested whether a student picked up certain critical skills in high school and was indeed ready to go on to college. Whereas before we had one, we will now have two national college entrance exams that demean the value of education and that will perpetuate (keep going) the persistent mediocrity of our students. The United States is number 19 in reading, 22 in Science, and 29 in Math. Those numbers are ALL significant drops from the last time the rankings came out four years ago.

Rather than try to fix the problems in our education system, we are adapting our assessments to align with our decreasing level of intelligence. Rather than train teachers to be better teachers, to understand how what they are teaching in the classroom DIRECTLY relates to what is showing up on the SAT (and it really does), we are instead changing the test to dumb it down for our nation.

For all intents and purposes, America is a modern day empire. The world often hangs on our words and decisions. But we cannot maintain our preeminence (superiority) if the quality of those words continues to decline to the reading level of a third grader. I fear that our time as the world’s superpower will soon be Gone.

Perhaps Mark Slouka said it best: “Gone. The saddest word in the language. In any language.”

Beware of Guarantees

Watch for this key phrase or promise:

We will guarantee that your score will improve.

Statistics can be easily manipulated to reflect an intended or advertised outcome. Princeton Review, Kaplan, and the other large commercial companies all guarantee a score increase. They will advertise an average score increase for their students. BUT BEWARE! READ THE VERY SMALL PRINT!

To qualify for their guarantee and to be included in their statistic for the number of kids whose scores went up, there is a condition: every student MUST show up to every class and MUST do every homework assignment.

This means two things:

  • If you have missed just one homework assignment or just one class of the 13-15 classes in their courses, then you no longer qualify for the guarantee. Anyone who knows teenagers knows how much school work they have each week in addition to all the extra activities in their lives. By assigning an inordinate amount of homework between classes, these companies can pretty much insure that they will never have to "pay out" on a cash back guarantee!
  • Missing just one homework assignment or one class also means that they don't have to include you in their statistics. That's right. If you miss one class or forget one assignment, it doesn't mean they can't include you, it just means they don't have to include you.

So what is the result?

If you did score very well and improve on your test, then they will of course include you, even if you rarely showed up to class and never did the homework. You made them look good.

But if you didn't go up a substantial amount they don't have to include you in their statistics because they can claim that you didn't do all the work or did not show up to all the classes. We think this is scandalous.

See how easily statistics can be manipulated?

Trust us, we have had of thousands of students come through our courses, and the majority of them will slip at least once and forget to do a homework assignment or have to miss a class. It comes with the territory of being a teenager. It happens. Don't buy in to guarantees or believe statistics. The fine print will tell you the real story on the guarantee, and some research will tell you the truth behind the statistics.

At PEN, we will only guarantee that a student will receive the best possible academically- sound instruction using ONLY authentic College Board and ETS-published material. There is no 'small print' with our guarantee. Beware of anyone who promises you more.

Be sure to check out our Course Description and to Sign Up for Classes

What does the SAT actually test for?

The SAT is a reasoning test. Therefore, it does not test students on subject-specific content. Instead, it tests students on their ability to apply reasoning and logic to all subject matter to ensure comprehension.

Students must be able to take the tools for reading, writing, and math that they should have learned in high school, and apply them to situations slightly different from those which they are accustomed to seeing.

This is a key distinction. Put in other words, the SAT wants students not just to know material through memorization, but to understand the principles and methodology for analysis and assessment of that material.

Remember, the SAT is testing the student's ability to approach material, any material: Shakespeare, history, science, anything. Here's what matters: does the student have the tools in place to read, comprehend, assess, and react?

Do students COMPREHEND the intent of the writer?Can they ASSESS the content of the passage and recognize what is important? Finally, can they REACT to a writing prompt and construct a cohesive argument for or against that topic.

If a student is not equipped with the math, reading, and writing skills necessary to approach new material, then that student will encounter problems as he/she moves on to the more challenging college curriculum.

Most people think that undergraduate college prepares you for a specific career path in life. In reality though, college teaches us more about "the art of learning." That is, as undergraduates, we learn how to learn. We enroll in courses that will force us to take our level of knowledge in a subject area and apply it to the next level up. In college and life beyond, we are constantly asked to perform in places where we are uncomfortable and unfamiliar, yet able. At its ideal then, secondary education, as a precursor to college, should prepare students to be able to learn how to learn, and the SAT is testing the level to which students have been prepared.

Try not to get mixed up in the argument that some students are not test-takers and for others still, the SAT does not test their strengths. Remember one thing: at the very minimum to be ultimately successful in life, everyone graduating high school should be able to read, write, and do math at a level sufficient enough to survive in college. Reading, writing, and mathematics are at the foundation of everything in life. These are the subjects upon which the SAT focuses, and that is why it is a GREAT TEST.

The purpose of the SAT is not to look for a student's ability to memorize facts, or recycle an old research paper, or display knowledge of math concepts learned the year before. Instead, the SAT is looking to see if you have gained the reading skills to be able to read for critical information; if you have gained the writing skills to put together a cohesive, well-written essay that can engage a reader; and if you have learned high school math concepts well enough to apply them to questions that seek similar answers, but which are asked in unfamiliar formats. If you can do those three things successfully, you can move on to college and beyond.

Why is the SAT is a great test?

There has been an enormous amount of backlash over the years against the SAT. Unfortunately, much of it is driven by the large commercial test prep companies who rely on a fear campaign to build a client-base. One prominently named company calls the SAT the "Stupid Annoying Test." They and other companies convince parents that the SAT does not test what children are learning in school and the only hope of their child's success is if they take those companies' courses.

  • Trust us -- you want to take this test! College admissions officers are swamped with thousands of applications every year from over 25,600 high schools in the United States. With such a high number, there is no way they can compare public, private, and parochial schools across the nation. A GPA in one school may not be equivalent to a GPA in another.

    The SAT then becomes the great equalizer in evaluating academic achievement nationwide. Since everyone receives the same exam, the test result gives admissions officers a point of comparison.

  • The SAT tests whether or not you have gained the tools and knowledge you need to move on to the college level. There is a grave misconception about the SAT that it does not test the right concepts, and that the concepts it does test do not show up in high school curricula. THIS IS UNTRUE!

Psst, Inside Information

Myths, Facts, and Advice

MYTH: The PSAT is a practice test for the SAT.

FACT: The PSAT is the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship Program. This test has been designed to identify scholars from each state who will have the opportunity to continue the selection process for the scholarship award.

ADVICE: Preparing for the PSAT, whether or not a student will qualify for the National Merit Award, will prevent "test shock"! Going into the test having an idea as to the range of scores achievable helps alleviate stress and anxiety. Preparing for the PSAT is an early start for the SAT, lessening the amount of work necessary at a later time.

MYTH: It is almost impossible to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Program.

FACT: Many more students could qualify for the National Merit Scholarship program or receive a letter of commendation if they were properly prepared for the PSAT. The PSAT consists of three sections: Verbal, Math, and Writing (grammar). The highest score on each section of the PSAT is 80 (as compared to 800 on the SAT). Each state has its own qualifying score.

ADVICE: Be sure to take a pre-test to assess your current situation. Take ONLY a REAL PSAT that has been administered in the past.

MYTH: All practice PSAT & SAT material is the same.

FACT: Many commercial preparation companies administer a "look alike" test and use "look alike" material in their classes, written by their own staff. It may look like a real PSAT and SAT, BUT it's usually NOT a REAL SAT or PSAT! Working on authentic ETS material is essential.

ADVICE: Whether you choose to study on your own or take a preparation course be sure to work ONLY with College Board material. Purchase on-line or at any local bookstore. Seek out a preparation program that exclusively uses the College Board material.

MYTH: If you do well on the PSAT you are guaranteed to do well on the SAT.

FACT: The nature of the scoring on the PSAT is quite different from the SAT. Scores can be dramatically inflated or deflated with a just a few points in either direction.

ADVICE: Practice on REAL SAT's after you have received your PSAT score. Chart your scores to gauge the average of what your score might be.

OUR TAKE ON: The State of Education

As schools are being held uniformly accountable for their students' performance, the importance of professional development that focuses on the quality of education, values the critical role of the teacher, and has a lasting effect on a school, is paramount. The race to improve schools has unfortunately, in many cases, fallen prey to the following problems:

  • The nationwide pressure on test scores has spawned companies that have taken a quick-fix, "teach-to-the-test" approach that focuses more on scores than on the quality of education.
  • Schools are often forced to adopt education models that do not necessarily focus on teacher improvement but rather require a complete revamping of their curriculum.
  • The outsourcing of student tutoring and test preparation programs comes at a tremendous cost to a district and not only takes money away from what can be done to help teachers but, more importantly, this approach has no lasting benefit to the school.

At PEN we recognize and value teachers' commitment to improve student performance.

  • We use innovative teaching methods that help teachers highlight the skills and concepts in their curriculum that are being tested on standardized exams.
  • Tests become an extension of what is already being taught in the classroom, not an obstacle to be overcome.
  • We work with your teachers within your curriculum to create change, improving upon the foundation that is already in place.