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Are We About To Get a New and Improved SAT?

Re-assessing the relationship between the SAT and the classical curriculum

The SAT, the test dreaded by many high school students as the three most significant hours of their lives, will change again in the spring of 2016. The essay adopted in 2006 will now be made optional, while College Board president David Coleman told NPR that these other new changes will assess students on “the learning [they] do over years each day,” rather than test-taking strategies that do not demonstrate viable intellectual abilities.

Many classical educators cringe at current trends in education, especially those promoted by Common Core standards that seem to impose extraneous steps in the solving of simple math problems. Since David Coleman helped design and implement the Common Core standards prior to heading up the SAT redesign, the redesigned SAT could theoretically penalize students who are not familiar with Common Core. However, as I intend to show below, this should not be the case for students enrolled in a classical curriculum.

For instance, the SAT’s updated verbal section will test students on the ability to think critically and support their conclusions with evidence provided in reading passages. Some sample questions are available here. Other verbal sections require students to analyze texts and the meaning of words within that text, as determined by context rather than any other possible meaning or even of that student’s personal opinion. By doing so, the College Board hopes to assess a student’s ability to think carefully, critically, and “without last-minute tricks or cramming” as is associated with many SAT prep courses. Students will no longer have to memorize scores of obscure vocabulary words in favor of close, analytical reading of significant texts. So far, so good.

Many trends in current education deny real, genuine truth and even the meaning of simple words, and, consciously or unconsciously, favor the humanist creed that “man is the measure of all things.” The post-modern worldview denies universal truth and encourages individuals to create their own meaning, however he or she may please, and such liberating dictums are often inculcated to school children at an early age. Coleman and the College Board should be thanked and congratulated for maintaining that the meaning of words and texts do mean something. Critical thinking demands the ability to interact with ideas outside of one’s self, even ideas that the student does not agree with, and we should be thankful that the most important test our students take will now evaluate them on their ability to think critically.

Where a classics curriculum and the standards of Common Core differ may simply be in the texts we choose to use. Oftentimes, modern curricula read books written relatively recently, from the early 19th century to the present day. While more modern works have their merits, they are written from a vantage point somewhat similar to our own and their language sounds eerily similar to our own. A classics curriculum is defined by the use of texts which have stood the test of time.

If we want our students to think critically, they should be given the best books possible to mold those skills. Works that were worth hiding from Roman authorities bent on destroying on them, or worth the millions of man-hours spent in a monastery copying by hand pieces of parchment to preserve these works for future generations. A classics curriculum employs the tools that Western civilization has handed down to us and has molded the great men and women of our past, whom we admire and in whose work we seek to understand the meaning, dignity, and sublimity of life.

A classics curriculum is not intended to overwhelm students with all the knowledge of the Western tradition, but to provide them with a toolbox of intellectual positions to help them make sense of the world in which they live. In a classics curriculum, students are taken through the great books so that they may take on the whole world—beginning with the new, redesigned SAT.

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