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Radtke: The New SAT

During the 3 decades I served as a high-school English teacher, I noticed that whenever the College Board announced a change in the SAT, we teachers scrambled to adjust our curriculum to reflect the new focus.

When analogies were included, students practiced analogies; when a 25 minute essay was added, students wrote 5 paragraph essays in class to replicate testing conditions and to write on demand under the pressure of time. Now, the College Board has announced that beginning in spring of 2016, in the reading section, a hefty eighty percent of the reading passages, will be nonfiction.

Most of us don’t read poetry – much less write it - after our schooling is completed. And according to the Pew Research Center the number of non-book readers has tripled since 1978. So the test makers in Princeton have embraced the analysis of facts as a predictor of academic and career success. In fact, graphs and charts will now supplement a reduction of text in the reading section.

In the new SAT essay section, instead of supporting a personal view on a subject, students will be specifically instructed not to have an opinion, and instead to analyze the way the passage works and to cite evidence. These new tests align with the Common Core standards; indeed, the College Board is currently developing tests for every grade level reflecting this new focus away from stories. Our education watchword is becoming Facts, not Feelings. And whether it’s the Regents in NY State, or the plethora of measures in today’s test-obsessed world, in my experience, standardized tests eventually do drive the curriculum, even if we teachers initially resist.
I hear echoes of the cold world of Dickens’ Hard Times, in which Mr Gradgrind exclaims “Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”
So English teachers everywhere will soon be scurrying to find nonfiction texts for students to analyze, and putting aside all those novels, poems, and short stories until the pendulum swings again.

That’s too bad. Works like Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, To Kill A Mockingbird, and the Odyssey may not contain actual “facts” but they can make us more empathetic as human beings.

In a New York Times article, “Your Brain on Fiction,” Annie Murphy Paul reports that neuroscience is documenting connections between reading narratives and the ability to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings. Apparently, people who read fiction are better able to understand other people, and to see the world from their perspective. But if, as the College Board claims, analyzing nonfiction predicts career-readiness, then having the social intelligence to thrive in that career is equally valid.

Learning geared toward creating a successful worker should also contribute to creating a successful human being.

Linda Radtke, the host of the Vermont Public Choral Hour, has spent many happy hours through the years in the Vermont Public studio, singing with Counterpoint and other choral ensembles, volunteering for pledge drives, and recording for the commentary series.
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