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Debbie Stier's 'The Perfect Score Project' and the New SAT

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This article was co-authored by Director of Standardized Test Preparation Michael Bergen

Over the past few weeks, the SAT has become a topic of national conversation. First came the release of Debbie Stier's book The Perfect Score Project, which details Stier's year-long effort to achieve a perfect score on the SAT and, as a result, connect with her high school-age son and motivate him to prepare as well. Less than two weeks later, The New York Times covered the College Board's announcement of the changes to the SAT starting in 2016. The overhaul is multifaceted, encompassing modifications to the scoring policy and overall scale, a shift in non-mathematical content, and even efforts to provide equitable test preparation from lower socioeconomic strata. While Stier's book is a candid and often touching account of her own anxieties and her struggle to remain an important part of her teenage children's lives, it also provides excellent examples of the very problems the College Board is attempting to rectify.

At a glance, the most noteworthy aspect of Stier's journey in The Perfect Score Project is just how much preparation she undertakes. It is unclear exactly how many test prep books Stier purchased, but 15 or so is a reasonable estimate. She also enrolled in an online course, took lessons through a national learning center, and received one-on-one help from a few different sources, most notably a private tutoring firm that often charges over $500 per hour. All this is to say that even though Stier's method is far from typical, high-end SAT preparation can cost several thousands of dollars, and that is simply not a financially viable option for most students and families. In the past, the College Board has tried to dispel the notion that paying for preparation yields results, but Debbie's 330-point increase on the SAT and the burgeoning test prep industry suggest otherwise. The College Board's new plan is much more active: free classes through a partnership with Khan Academy, a world-leader in free, technology-based education. While the College Board has long offered free materials on its own website, this new initiative will give students of any income level unprecedented access to instruction at their own pace with data-driven feedback. In this system, the limitation shifts from the student's finances to the student's personal motivation, which is a huge victory for the validity of the test.

The Perfect Score Project also highlights a number of SAT foibles that are now under repair. The best example is the current SAT essay which forces students to write an analytical essay about a prompt they have never seen in 25-minutes. Stier bemoans the task itself as arbitrary, the scoring as erratic (which it notoriously is), and the strategy as simplistic. It is not surprising that the College Board made the essay a high priority; not only has the essay format changed so that students will be asked to analyze the validity of arguments, but it has also been removed from the scoring and will be optional (as the essay is on the ACT). Stier also references test-taking strategy several times, citing the creation of an "Answer Zone" and "Skip Zone" before even reading the questions. This is the kind of gamesmanship the SAT is likely looking to eradicate by changing its scoring system. The SAT has always deducted a fraction of a point for incorrect answers, the logic being that guesses would mathematically even themselves out. To simplify this system, the new SAT will award points for correct answers but will no longer penalize wrong ones. To be sure, the College Board has listened to criticisms of the test and is doing its best to create a fair test that aligns more closely with the work students do in school and later in life.

But will the new SAT really accomplish all these goals?

The new forms of content on the test sound useful and more educationally sound than their predecessors, but we must reserve praise until we've seen the finished product; remember, the SAT's essay was hailed as a great step forward when it was introduced in 2005. Even more difficult to accomplish will be narrowing the disparity in preparation. While the work with Khan Academy is an excellent step, the fact is that free resources have been available since the inception of the current version of the test ten years ago. No matter how good Khan Academy's classes are, they will be hard pressed to match the specific feedback and support of an in-person tutor. Test prep is a demand created by parents like Debbie Stier who want their students to be competitive, to achieve as much as they can by getting into great schools. The creation of a better test is a worthwhile enterprise, but don't assume that a fair test will prevent its takers from searching for every option they can to succeed.