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.”