State dumps 'punitive' achievement test in favor of revised SAT

Free college entrance exam will do double duty as state's high school assessment

By Doug Cantwell
Posted 11/14/19

The state education department has adopted the SAT - heavily revised to be more culturally sensitive, according to some - as its primary tool to measure New Mexico high school student achievement.

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State dumps 'punitive' achievement test in favor of revised SAT

Free college entrance exam will do double duty as state's high school assessment


The state education department has adopted the SAT - heavily revised to be more culturally sensitive, according to some - as its primary tool to measure New Mexico high school student achievement.

On day three of her administration, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed an executive order ridding New Mexico once and for all of the widely despised PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) tests, which many said were designed to punish students and teachers rather than provide meaningful assessments of their skills or constructive feedback.

"We were losing our teaching ranks [under PARCC]," said Jacqueline Costales, Public Education Department's division director of curriculum and instruction, at a mid-October PED lunch 'n' learn in Taos. "We had a system that felt punitive to teachers. We want to use data for what data's worth in terms of making decisions - but we don't want to use it to degrade or to label. PARCC was a system that was grading both our schools and our teachers. All of us do better with support."

Finding something better

The governor delegated a task force to find a better "summative assessment" test that would check the box for U.S. Department of Education evaluative requirements for high school juniors. The test would also let students know how they stack up against their peers nationwide, offer them guidance on where they might go from here and take the pressure off teachers, who widely feared the annual release of the PARCC assessment results.

The task force came up with the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT, the standardized college entrance exam designed and administered by the College Board that's been around for decades. However, the SAT has allegedly been modernized and purged of bias that favored some ethnic or socioeconomic groups over others.

"We've held stakeholder work groups and gotten feedback to make sure we have a culturally and linguistically holistic test," said Zach Chavez, community outreach coordinator at the Public Education Department.

With the SAT serving as the state's final assessment test, every student will get a free shot at taking it. "This has been a preventative for families that are strapped financially," said Costales. "For some, that $60 SAT registration fee is a fortune. It could buy a week and a half's worth of groceries for the whole family."

Costales also noted that the free SAT segues nicely into the governor's proposal to make tuition free at all of New Mexico's public colleges and universities. "If I'm one family that wouldn't have had my student take the SAT, and now my student gets a free shot at it," she said, "what is that information going to spur in a state where the governor and Legislature are also working to make college free?"

The state is not trying to force students into a college-bound trajectory but rather hopes to open that door to many who might never have considered college a possibility. Whether a student is looking at going to a two-year community college or a four-year university, or going straight into a career - perhaps doing what their grandfather did - any information they get from the SAT, in the state's view, would give them a better sense of what they're poised and ready to do.

At a minimum, Costales added, the SAT will get students to take a hard look at where they need support in order to succeed on their chosen path. Or, she said, it could prompt a response of, "Oh my gosh, I never had any idea that I could score like this on a test. Maybe I should look at taking advantage of that free college opportunity."

Taos High School Principal C.J. Grace applauded the decision. "The hope is that because the SAT represents something beyond secondary school, unlike PARCC, that students will have increased engagement," said Grace. "Their results represent college admissions and scholarship money, so there are tangible benefits to the SAT. As well, students who may not have seen themselves as ready for college may change their mind when they see their scores."

A truly unbiased test?

New Mexico's move to adopt the SAT comes as more and more public and private institutions across the country are dropping standardized tests like the SAT or American College Test (ACT) as an admission requirement. As reported in the Nov. 3 Santa Fe New Mexican ("Despite many colleges dropping SAT, New Mexico paying for it"), about 40 percent of colleges and universities in the United States that award bachelor's degrees no longer require scores from either test.

Granted, the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University still require either the SAT or ACT for admission. But many smaller public schools, such as New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas and Western New Mexico University in Silver, offer open enrollment, which means they don't maintain a competitive admissions policy and thus don't require entrance exam scores.

Critics also view the SAT as still biased, despite the College Board's relentless efforts to neutralize the test culturally and linguistically. According to FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a Massachusetts nonprofit organization, SAT score gaps between demographic groups grew even larger for the class of 2019 as compared with the class of 2018.

"Whether broken down down by test-takers' race, parental education or household income, average SAT scores of students from historically disenfranchised groups fell further behind their classmates from more privileged families," said FairTest Public Education Director Robert Schaeffer in a September 23 news release. "That means access to colleges and financial aid will be even more skewed at schools that still rely on test scores to make admissions and tuition award decisions."

Schaeffer added, "The SAT remains a more accurate measure of a test-taker's family background than of an applicant's capacity to do college-level work."

However, the state does not regard the SAT as a panacea for assessing all New Mexico students' ability to succeed at college-level work. Rather, they see it as phase one of a more global overhaul of evaluative practices that starts in the individual classroom.

"Regarding the support of historically disenfranchised students, PED has worked to provide support systems to all students in order to set them up for success on the SAT," said Deputy Secretary Gwen Perea Warniment in a statement to the Taos News. "A key component of this is adopting the PSAT [Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test] as the 10th-grade assessment. PSAT data can be used to create custom-developed SAT study plans for individual students."

Revised in 2016, today's SAT "puts greater emphasis on the meaning of words in extended contexts and on how word choice shapes meaning, tone and impact," according to the College Board's website. In Chavez's words at the Taos lunch 'n' learn, "It's not the SAT of old, which has a lot of misconceptions and has been labeled as irrelevant to New Mexican students. This 2016 revision is a really thoughtful SAT that has worked in New Mexico."


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