Quick Fixes Won’t Raise Test Scores
Charles Murray can’t be pleased with the New York City Department of Education’s plan to spend a few hundred thousand dollars on online SAT prep for public school students. Murray doesn’t believe policy can cause a significant rise in test scores, so he must view this expenditure or any other program with a similar goal as a waste of resources.
While I’m generally more optimistic that scores can rise, in this case I agree that student achievement is unlikely to change. A test prep course could help if students are simply unfamiliar with the test, or if they just need a little extra practice with the kind of questions that appear on it. But if low scores reflect a deeper problem, as I suspect they do for many New York students, last-minute test prep won’t make a difference.
The best course of action would be to improve schooling for younger students, years before they take college admissions exams. Then, by the time they get to high school, they won’t struggle with the math and vocabulary found in the SAT.
New York shouldn’t give up on current high school students, but it needs to help them build a stronger foundation of knowledge than what they’ll get from a course on test-taking strategies. The department could stick with the online education model, and instead of explicitly offering free test prep, it could open English or math courses similar to the St. Louis Public Schools’ virtual school. Course materials needn’t teach to the test, although students whose skills improved would do better on test day as a consequence. To preserve the college admissions focus, the department could use a practice SAT to place students into different course levels.
New York shouldn’t limit its use of online education to preparing students for one test. We want students to be prepared for the next high school course they take, and for whatever courses they take beyond high school, too.