The New SAT by Judy Bolton-Fasman

When Adam saw the cover story of the New York Times Sunday Magazine a couple of weeks ago, he groaned, “Too late for me.” The headline that upset him, “The Story of the SAT Overhaul,” announced that a new version of the SAT was coming out in the spring of 2016.

Adam had just come off of taking the nearly four-hour exam the day before and he was not a happy camper. Ask Adam what he thinks of the SAT and he’ll happily give you an earful on the subject. “The SAT is quite possibly the worst way to gauge a student’s ability to perform at a college level,” he says. “The vocabulary is unnecessarily obscure, the reading analysis asks the most random questions, the writing section indoctrinates students to lose all sense of creativity and style and the essay is judging a student’s ability to write in a time limit not suitable for a well constructed paragraph.”

Of course, that’s one kid’s opinion, but I suspect many of his peers share it as well. It appears that the College Board has been listening too. For the second time in ten years the Board is thoroughly revising the way it tests college applicants. According to David Coleman, who took over as head of the College Board in 2012, the changes will go far in democratizing the test for all students.

In effect, Coleman is acknowledging the SAT’s dirty, open secret – families with access to wealth, education, a good school or all three have an unfair advantage when preparing for the test. The new SAT will be more aligned with what a college-bound senior should have learned in a common core curriculum. Before coming to the College Board, Coleman was a key figure in the development of the Common Core Standards. Those standards, with their emphasis on analytical thinking as well as key math and writing concepts, will be reflected in the new SAT. As it stands now, Coleman acknowledges the test is “disconnected” from the high school curriculum.

Some of Adam’s criticisms have been dealt with in the test that will be administered in 2016. The section that is currently labeled critical reading will merge with multiple choice writing questions from to form a new section called “evidence-based reading and writing.” Thankfully, current questions known as “sentence completion” will be jettisoned, addressing Adam’s complaint about defining “unnecessarily obscure” vocabulary.

The College Board will include more science, history and social studies questions for further analysis on the exam. New among those passages will be source documents from American luminaries like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The math section will focus more on data analysis, problem solving, algebra and topics touching on more advanced mathematics. As it stands now, calculators are allowed throughout the math sections, but they will be barred from certain portions in the future to determine math fluency.

The mandatory essay, an innovation of the 2005 SAT, will be optional in the future. Students will now have 50 minutes to analyze evidence as well as an author’s argument. Currently, test-takers have only 25 minutes to answer a prompt that doesn’t require them to verify facts or worry about accuracy.

The change that I am most excited about in this whole SAT business is that it has the potential to level the playing field when it comes to test preparation. Gaming the SAT is a $4.5 billion-a-year industry that preys on parents and kids alike. To end this madness (and yes, my kids took prep courses, so I got caught up in the frenzy too), Coleman has partnered with Khan Academy, which offers free online tutorials on myriad subjects ranging from literature to calculus.The academy was founded in 2006 by Sal Khan, 36, who left his job as a successful hedge-fund manager with the goal of bringing a world-class education to anyone with an internet connection. With that same can-do, egalitarian spirit, Khan Academy will offer its trademark free videos on preparing for the new SAT.

The new SAT will also hopefully make books like the newly published, The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT by Debbie Stier feel anachronistic. Stier is a suburban New York mom who decided that the only way to gain admission and win a scholarship to college for her B average son was to help him achieve a perfect 2400 on the current SAT. Thirty years earlier, Stier had done poorly on her own SAT exam, so in her quest to beef up her son’s academic profile she took the SAT as an adult – seven times in seven different test centers. She went to tutoring companies, engaged pricey private teachers and generally drove herself nuts. She didn’t achieve a perfect score – her verbal scores steadily improved but she never scored more than the mid-500s in math – but she learned a thing or two about the unfairness of the system along the way.

As for Adam, he says that SAT has too much power in teenagers’ lives. He’s doubtful whether a new version can come close to reigning in that power. He may be right. Yet after all is said and done, most college admissions officers note that grades, not SAT scores, are the best predictors of success in college.

In Memory of the Children by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Roee Grutman, Karen Douglas and Katie Stack: These are the names of the three Newton high school students who took their lives in the past four months.

What is happening to our children? Is the pressure so unbearable that they see suicide as the only alternative in their lives? And where is that pressure coming from? School, home, the playing field? Are their feelings of despair so deeply internalized that we, their parents, only see the usual adolescent angst? I don’t have answers – only deep sadness and raw fear.

There are always statistics to pair with any tragedy. In the case of teen suicide, the statistics are particularly sobering. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention report that for youths between the ages of 10 and 24, suicide is the third-leading cause of death. It results in about 4,600 lives lost each year.

Deaths from youth suicide are only part of the story. According to the CDC, more young people survive suicide attempts than actually die. A nationwide survey of youth in 9th through 12th grades, both in public and private schools, found that 16 percent of students reported seriously considering suicide, 13 percent reported creating a plan and 8 percent reported trying to take their own lives in the 12 months preceding the survey. There are also about 157,000 youth between the ages of 10 and 24 who receive medical care for selfinflicted injuries at emergency rooms across the country each year.

One of the more recent and visible projects addressing teen suicide has been the Internet-based “It Gets Better.” Founded by gay activist Dan Savage and his husband, the enterprise began as a response to the high suicide rate among LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) youth by featuring gay adults in videos communicating that life improves as kids grow up. The campaign was so successful that there is a dedicated website with more than 50,000 videos made by adults of all sexual orientations encouraging kids to work through hard times because life always gets better.

Efrem Epstein knows about weathering tough times. As an adult, Epstein came out the other end of a severe depression and in gratitude for his recovery volunteered with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. In 2009 he was invited to participate in World Suicide Prevention Day, where he saw a number of diverse organizations present programs in their communities in support of suicide prevention. It was a light-bulb moment for Epstein, who realized that there was no Jewish organization dedicated to working on suicide prevention. “I knew I needed to create an organization with Jewish nuances in mind,” Epstein said in a recent interview. The result was the creation of Elijah’s Journey, so named for the prophet Elijah who asked God to take his life after a trying time. In response, G-d told Elijah to take a 40-day journey to rethink his life.

This is one of the text studies that Epstein teaches in synagogue groups, Limmud classes and Hillel programs. He says, “Developing text studies and programs using a Jewish lens opens up the lines of communication about suicide.” In his presentations, Epstein also points to Numbers 11 in which an overwhelmed Moses asks G-d to end his life. G-d advises Moses to surround himself with 70 elders who can share his burdens with him.

In addition to offering Jewish wisdom on the subject, Epstein notes, “These texts highlight the fact that suicide is not new. Biblical characters had suicidal feelings and it is becoming a lot less taboo in the Jewish community to talk about it. Part of the challenge that Elijah’s Journey has had has been to get the word out there. The issue has not been on the Jewish community’s radar. There are 1 million suicide attempts every year resulting in 40,000 actual suicides. But we have worked with synagogues of all denominations to convince the Jewish community that it is a critical issue for the community.”

To introduce its mission into homes, Elijah’s Journey is working on a document for Passover that families can read at their Seder when they open the door for Elijah. “We’re hoping that we can incorporate thinking about suicide prevention into the Seder ceremony,” says Epstein. There also plans to develop information for visiting the shiva house of someone lost to suicide.

For now, though, I’d like to take a moment to say the Mourner’s Kaddish for Roee Grutman, Karen Douglas and Katie Stack. May G-d comfort the families and friends who loved these young people among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem, and the entire world.

Mourner’s Kaddish

Yitgadal veyitkadash shemey raba

Be’alma di vera chir’utey

Veyamlich malchutey

Bechayeychon u’veyomeychon

U’vechayey di’chol beit yisrael

Ba’agala u’vizman kariv ve’imru amein Yehey sh’mey raba mevorach le’alam u’le’almey almaya

Yitbarach ve’yishtabach ve’yitpa’ar ve’yitromam ve’yitnasey

Ve’yit’hadar ve’yit’aleh ve’yit’halal

She’mey d’kud’sha b’rich hu

Le’eyla min kol birchata ve’shirata tushbechata ve’nechemata

Da’amiran be’alma ve’imru amein

Yehey sh’lama raba min shemaya ve’chayim

Aleynu ve’al kol yisrael ve’imru amen

O’seh shalom bimromav

Hu ya’aseh shalom aleynu ve’al kol yisrael

Ve’imru amein

Magnified and sanctified be Your name, O G-d, throughout the world, which You have created according to Your will. May Your sovereignty be accepted in our own days, in our lives, and in the life of all the House of Israel, speedily and soon, and let us say, Amen.

May Your great name be blessed for ever and ever.

Exalted and honored, adored and acclaimed be Your name, O Holy One. Blessed are You, whose glory transcends all praises, songs and blessings voiced in the world, and let us say, Amen.

Grant abundant peace and life to us and to all Israel, and let us say, Amen.

May You who establish peace in the heavens, grant peace to us, to Israel, and to all the earth, and let us say, Amen.