The Destructive Capacity of David Coleman

David Coleman announces the SAT redesign.
David Coleman announces the SAT redesign.

Since Common Core architect David Coleman took over as president of the College Board, the scandals or at least embarrassments have come fast and furious (see here and here). The latest is a Reuters investigation, reported by EdWeek, that discovered the College Board’s vaunted redesign of the SAT math section erects even more hurdles to students who traditionally score lower anyway (low-income and minority students). This is because the new math section focuses more on reading than actually working math problems, so a student who is good at math but less so at reading will score lower on math than he would have under the traditional SAT design.

The problem is the new SAT’s alignment with the Common Core national standards. 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.

From reviewing internal emails, Reuters discovered that College Board officials “knew of the potential problem with the word-heavy math questions because outside academics raised the issue as they reviewed items while they were being developed.” And in a confidential 2014 test run, only about half the students even finished the math section.

Maybe Coleman and Co. intended to correct the problem, but apparently they never got around to it. Or maybe they’re so invested in the Common Core ideology of “deeper conceptual understanding” that they simply don’t care.

So assume the situation of an immigrant student (call him Carlos) whose family speaks Spanish at home. Assume he’s a math whiz but still struggles with English, because he’s been in the country only five or six years. With the old SAT he might have performed poorly on the verbal portion but scored an 800 on the math. With the new test, he’ll perform poorly on both. Well done, Mr. Coleman.

Not only will Carlos suffer from this ideological redesign, but his school may as well. This is because the new fed-ed bill, the Every Student Succeeds Act, allows states to replace their high-school achievement tests with the SAT. The ramifications of the redesign are thus troubling both for Carlos and for honest accountability for schools.

Dr. Sandra Stotsky raised a related concern years ago about Common Core math, in that case with respect to children in the early grades. Since Common Core applies the word-heavy approach across K-12, young children are also expected to read paragraphs rather than simply grasp math calculations. This means, Dr. Stotsky warned, that many little boys might struggle with math even if they have a gift for numbers – because little boys are generally less verbal than little girls. Johnny might be proud that he can work math problems more quickly than anyone in the class, but don’t worry, Common Core will beat that sense of accomplishment out of him.

Common Core theorists call this “productive struggle.” Normal people might call it academic malpractice. By all means, let’s extend it to teenagers as well.

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.

Michael Cohen, a prominent developer of and cheerleader for Common Core, testified several years ago that we won’t know the full effects of Common Core “until an entire cohort of students, from kindergarten through high school graduation, has been effectively exposed to Common Core teaching.” 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. Mr. Cohen underestimated the destructive capacity of Mr. Coleman.