There’s something scary to me about the new SAT.
As an educational therapist supporting students who learn differently, I have to pause and wonder what this test means for the children of today and the adults of our future. While the redesigned version of the preeminent college admissions test brings the SAT more closely in line with national curriculum trends emphasizing deeper analytical thinking through reading and writing tasks, I see a narrowing of the spotlight on the array of talents and skills that eclipse our definition of “smart” and what it means to be successful in our society. And this is what is so terrifying to me.
From parents with preschoolers on the playgrounds to parents comparing their high school students’ SAT scores, there is a common level of pride in having a child who is a good reader – and with that comes shame and the feeling of failure as a parent in having a child who struggles with reading. Children who are not inherently strong readers face their own struggle that starts as early as kindergarten when they start noticing other kids who read and write with greater ease. All too often, I meet with parents who tell me about children who feel “dumb” and call themselves “stupid.” Although these parents have the intuitive knowledge that their child is bright and gifted in unique ways, they struggle to define these strengths.
What is so ironic and tragic is that the same children who struggle with reading are oftentimes identified as highly gifted and talented when evaluated on non-reading based tasks. Many of these kids are placed in GATE and Seminar programs in the public schools for their strengths in visual-spatial thinking, problem solving, and creativity. These students busy themselves at home designing and building wonders of engineering, narrating inspiring tales, and dreaming up inventions with the potential to make the world a better place for everyone. They impress adults with their social savvy and clever senses of humor.
It is this wider array of skills and talents that we need for the future of our society. While the teaching profession, along with law, and a few other prominent career fields, certainly require strong reading, writing, and analytical thinking skills assessed by the SAT, I fear that this narrow emphasis leaves students, parents, and teachers unable to recognize, appreciate, and nurture the broader spectrum of abilities that creates an abundantly diverse workforce. As Daniel Pink describes in his book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, our future depends upon individuals with highly developed minds for creative problem solving, designing innovative products, communicating meaningful messages, and relating to others with empathy. These are the skills of the right-brained thinkers, which stand in direct opposition to the left-brained analytical skills measured by tests like the SAT.
Although it has been over two decades since I studied for and took the SAT, just thinking about it makes my palms sweat and my heartbeat quicken. There is so much pressure on students to excel on the SAT and even more wrapped up in the interpretation of these scores as a measure of personal merit, especially in comparison to peers. My SAT scores do not tell you the full story of what makes me a great educational therapist or business leader; they don’t reflect my ability to connect with parents and students on a deep, empathetic level, nor do they give anything away of the drive and perseverance which has helped me overcome challenge after challenge that comes with being a business owner.
As we head into a future that is increasingly dominated by technology, auditory and interactive means to access information – such as YouTube, audiobooks, and podcasts – will no doubt become ubiquitous, hopefully leading to a shift in how we assess student’s learning potential. My hope is that this latest evolution in college admissions testing encourages more proactive outreach to address the needs of students who struggle to develop adequate literacy skills with typical classroom instruction. But for now, we will have to prepare diverse minds to measure up on a more limited yardstick of success.