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English Plus+ News, September 2001

Two Cheers for the SAT

The SAT May Not Be Perfect, But Consider the Alternatives

This month we consider the SAT-I, the college entrance examination used by most American universities. People are not always happy about taking it, or happy about the results, but compared to tests in other places, it really works pretty well most of the time.

Famous British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said, "No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

Something similar could be said for the SAT, the Scholastic Assessment Test used in the United States for admission to most colleges. Nobody is crazy about it, but it works as well as or better than most systems used in other places.

Who Gets to Take It?

First of all, mostly high school juniors and seniors take the SAT. In many places, a similar test is given to students around the age of twelve or thirteen. This test, usually a government-sponsored test, determines which schools or which educational programs the students attend from that point on. This is a full four or five years before they would be attending college. In my years of teaching grades nine through twelve, I have witnessed a number of students have matured significantly during those years. Why not wait?

There are a number of reasons that the age of twelve or thirteen may not be the best time to test students to determine their futures. This is a time of rapid physical growth. The brain often stops growing during this time and young people often lose focus. One reason, for example, that students diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and other learning disabilities need to be re-examined every three years is that many times such conditions are temporary. By the time the students are fifteen and sixteen, many have outgrown them.

In both boys and girls, the age of twelve or thirteen is a time of great hormonal changes which can also affect behavior for a time. Again, by the time they are old enough for college, their behavior may be much different, and they may be able to much better in school and on tests. Students at age twelve or thirteen are often more sensitive to social pressures than any other time in their lives. This often manifests itself in less interest in school. Some simply mature or "come to their senses" in their late teens. This is particularly true of boys. Colleges often overlook poor grades of boys in ninth grade if they have improved since then.

All of these conditions could mean a poor test score during junior high; yet, by the time they are finishing high school, they could be solid "college material."

It is true that most school systems that have a nationwide test at twelve or thirteen conduct another one specifically for college entrance at about the same time that American students take the SAT. But normally only the students already on the college preparation track determined four to six years prior can take the test. The students who were culled out by the earlier test seldom have a chance. Often teachers who teach these students confess that students have little to motivate them, and schools for these students may be nothing much more than warehouses. The same thing can happen in the United States, it is true, but at least it is not institutionalized because of a required test.

It is Made for Colleges and Students

Second, the SAT is written with students and colleges in mind. Originally, the College Entrance Examination Board, or College Board, was formed to help colleges by taking over their admissions examinations. Prior to this, a student had to take a separate exam for each school he or she applied to. While the form of the test has changed in the century since it began, its goal is still to serve colleges. It is not a government-sponsored test for social engineering. In the American market, if it did not serve colleges, colleges would not use it. Indeed, some colleges do not use it, and they have the perfect liberty not to.

Similarly, the College Board tests are sensitive to students. The students are their paying customers. They track student questions and frequently discard them if a distinct group of students scores significantly different than other groups. Sometimes there is no apparent reason for the discrepancy, but they do not want to take chances that their test is not a level playing field. The College Board is a private company and the students are its paying customers. It does respond to its customers and is aware of press reports and watchdog groups. There is far more responsiveness to the public than there is with a test made by bureaucrats.

There Are No Hidden Agendas

The SAT is not a political test. It does not screen students for their beliefs. For the most part, it does not try to impose a belief system on anyone. It is apolitical and the College Board tries to be fair in the way that the test is scored. With the exception of evolution, it avoids controversial subjects. I have seen selections from government-sponsored tests in other countries which extol the virtues of the ruling party and which clearly have politically loaded questions. Sometimes the SAT is criticized for its bland, Reader's Digest style, but for college admissions, better that than the political screening used elsewhere.

Your Cheatin' Heart...

Finally, it is hard to cheat on the SAT. The College Board tries to insure that testing locations and standards are uniform. It takes complaints about test administration seriously. Some schools and proctors have been prevented from continuing to give tests unless they make changes. Since the test is not government-sponsored, it freely does this without having to go through a government bureaucracy to get it done.

There is fairly strict security for the test. There are certain patterns the scorers look for to detect possible cheating. The Educational Testing Service (ETS), which writes the questions, is fairly isolated and uses a lot of double-blind communications to put the test together. Even the existence of two separate organizations in two locations, the College Board and the ETS, provides a certain double-blind quality assurance which makes compromise on the tests difficult.

When I was in the United States military, tests for certain enlisted specialties were frequently compromised. Some sailors would score perfect scores on tests they could barely read. This happened in spite of military confidentiality protocols. Even in the service there were political pressures, and people tried to use connections to get information about certain tests. This is much harder to do with the SAT because of the relative anonymity of the test makers and because the testing services are private companies. If a serious breach of secrecy does occur, the ETS acts immediately. It has to assure its customers--the colleges, the students, and their parents--that it is being fair. If it could not do that, it would go out of business.

Pobody's Nerfect

Being from the northeastern United States, I am more familiar with the SAT and the College Board. From what I have heard and observed, many of the same things apply to the ACT, the American College Test, another private entrance exam used especially in the central United States.

We can perhaps argue that no testing system is perfect. Figures indicate the SAT predicts college performance accurately about eighty percent of the time. But we can also observe that the ETS and College Board are customer-driven private enterprises. They have to provide a reliable service to stay in business. They certainly try hard to do so.

Grammar Slammer Now for Non-Windows Systems

Finally, it's here! Grammar Slammer and Grammar Slammer Deluxe are now available for users of computer systems other than Windows. This includes most Mac systems, most Linux and Unix systems, and the Palm OS.

How can English Plus+ do this? We have created the Grammar Slammer programs using the Adobe Acrobat Reader format. Now any system that can use Adobe Acrobat Reader can read Grammar Slammer. All you need to do is download a free copy of Adobe Acrobat Reader for your system, and then obtain a copy of Grammar Slammer or Grammar Slammer Deluxe. For more information see To download a demo, go to, the English Plus+ Download Page.

Now you can vanquish your language anguish, regardless of the operating system that you use. Not all features of Grammar Slammer are available with all operating systems.

May all your anguish be vanquished,
Your friends at English Plus+

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