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Each new SAT: a window on ideas of intelligence

The College Board unveiled a new SAT Wednesday aimed at better assessing critical thinking in college applicants. Its changes reflect evolving notions among higher ed, computer labs, and brain-research institutes about human intelligence.

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College Board President David Coleman announces changes to the SAT college entrance exam March 5 in Austin, Texas.

AP Photo

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Pencils ready? Choose the right answer: The SAT college entrance exam measures (1) intelligence, (2) aptitude, (3) achievement, or (4) potential to complete the first year of college.

You would probably not be wrong to pick all four. But in a redesign of the famous test long used to sift applicants for American colleges and universities, the College Board hopes the new SAT, unveiled Wednesday, comes close to Answers 3 and 4. It wants the new test, which debuts about a decade after a previous redesign, to be a better indicator of the learning that a student achieves in high school and a better predictor of college success.

Fortunately, the name of the test is not changing again. It was once the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Then the Scholastic Assessment Test. But like Kentucky Fried Chicken (“KFC”), it is officially known by its initialism: the SAT.

Changes in the test over time reflect a struggle in higher education and elsewhere to define human capabilities, from intelligence to teamwork to creativity. Computer engineers say they are getting closer to replicating human thinking, a prospect made popular in films like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and, more recently, “Her.” “Consciousness” researchers debate whether mental states can exist outside the brain. Among education experts, the big debate is how to better teach students – and measure their mastery of – the intangible qualities and soft skills of analytical reasoning and problem solving in real-world situations.

The new SAT is a far cry from its origins in the crude IQ tests of the early 20th century. Its creators claim it comes closer to assessing what colleges and employers seek in today’s graduates: critical thinking skills.

In a famous 2011 book, “Academically Adrift,” two researchers at New York University looked at college student test scores and found “little or no evidence of improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing” after four years of college.

And a study of standardized tests used for admissions, released last month by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, found such tests are not a great predictor of a student’s aptitude or intelligence. One coauthor, Williams Hiss, a former admissions dean of Bates College, said the key message is that human intelligence is too complex and varied to capture in an exam.

Still, some 80 percent of colleges still use the SAT or its competitor, the ACT, in judging applicants. Along with other inputs, especially grades, schools make assumptions about a person’s talent, knowledge, and potential.

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While mastery of facts in a particular field remains essential in academia, employers are demanding far more in terms of skills, such as curiosity and a desire to challenge assumptions. A recent Gallup poll found 96 percent of college provosts say student graduates are prepared, while only 11 percent of business leaders say they are. And many businesses today ask job applicants for their SAT scores, a sign that they seek workers with a high aptitude for learning.

The most basic quality of human intelligence remains self-awareness, something that researchers into consciousness may never find in their hope to pin all mental capabilities to the brain. How can matter ever be aware of detecting intelligence in matter? That problem, said American philosopher William James in 1890, is “the most mysterious thing in the world.”

Each new version of (or name for) the SAT takes humans a step closer to understanding their ability to form concepts, solve problems, and make progress. As a testing instrument, it remains flawed. But as a window into improved views of intelligence, it serves a purpose.

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