Worldly knowledge and the new SAT

So how do we connect The Dreamy Child Syndrome I blogged about earlier to the SAT reading sections I promised to relate it to?

Let’s begin with some observations by cognitive psychologist Dan Willingham, author of The Reading Mind. Willingham proposes that there is

a correlation between world knowledge and reading comprehension. The more stuff you know about the world, the more likely it is that you’ll know at least a bit about whatever passage you happen to hit.

In support of this, Willingham describes a 1997 paper by Anne Cunningham and Keith Stanovich:

The researchers administered a number of different measures to 11th graders, including the comprehension subtest of the Nelson-Denny Reading test, and three measures of general cultural knowledge: a 45 item cultural literacy test.

This test showed a “remarkably high correlation between reading comprehension and the measures of cultural knowledge.”

Willingham concludes:

once kids can decode fluently, reading comprehension depends heavily on knowledge. By failing to provide a solid grounding in basic subjects we inadvertently hobble children’s ability in reading comprehension.

But there’s another reason, beyond “we” adults, why a child could lack background knowledge. The child might in fact be (1) surrounded by knowledge (content-rich books; content-rich conversations; well-informed peers, parents and teachers; newspapers, magazines, and NPR news shows) and (2) highly encouraged to absorb that knowledge (via bedtime reading; carefully chosen books and clipped out articles; family dinners; outings to museums; and, of course, limited screen time). And yet, if that child lives mostly inside his or her head, a great deal of this knowledge will go right over that head.

This is especially true of knowledge that the child hasn’t been explicitly taught and held accountable for learning: i.e., the more ambient, worldly information that tends not to make it into even the most content-rich of K12 classrooms.

So here’s where new SAT comes in. Catherine and I have talked about it quite a bit and she has really helped me clarify my thinking on what’s afoot here. The new SAT reading passages, much more than their former incarnations, strike us both as tapping into a broad repository of worldly information and issues rather than scholastic knowledge in particular; to measure, not what a child has learned in school, but how much of a tuned-in, sophisticated, extraverted sponge he or she is.

Consider, for example, what this paragraph–an opener to one of the reading comprehension passages in the College Board’s 2017 Official SAT Study Guide–means to a dreamy child who’s had no direct experience with, or exposure to, an idea-driven economy, pressures to innovate, “collective hours commuting,” and “productive regions”:

In today’s idea-driven economy, the cost of time is what really matters. With the constant pressure to innovate, it makes little sense to waste countless collective hours commuting. So, the most efficient and productive regions are those in which people are thinking and working—not sitting in traffic.

Or–w.r.t. this opening to another SAT reading passage–consider a similar cluelessness about profits, economic efficiency, corporate social responsibility, and market outcomes:

Recent debates about the economy have rediscovered the question, “is that right?”, where “right” means more than just profits or efficiency.

Some argue that because the free markets allow for personal choice, they are already ethical. Others have accepted the ethical critique and embraced corporate social responsibility. But before we can label any market outcome as “immoral,” or sneer at economists who try to put a price on being ethical, we need to be clear on what we are talking about.

Perhaps it’s reasonable to inform colleges about how tuned in to the world an applicant is. After all, many colleges are more interested in “best graduates” rather than “best students”–i.e., in people who, regardless of how well they do in the classroom, will make the biggest worldly splash (bringing publicity, and perhaps large donations, to their alma maters). But, to the extent that the college classroom still matters, perhaps it also makes sense to assess applicants in ways that tease apart general verbal comprehension and verbal analysis skills from worldly sophistication.

3 thoughts on “Worldly knowledge and the new SAT

  1. It’s hard to read a block of badly written text on a subject you have no interest in. I had trouble with “others have accepted the ethical critique”. What ethical critique? This is really an opening paragraph? I felt like I must have missed an earlier paragraph that explains the ethical critique. (Shouldn’t that be “criticism”, rather than “critique”?) And “recent debates have rediscovered the question”? How do debates “rediscover” things? Total gobbledygook.


  2. The first block is no peach either. “In today’s idea-driven economy, the cost of time is what really matters.” How is that new to the idea-driven economy? I heard the saying “time is money” a million years ago in the old economy.

    Is the goal of these tests to teach kids how to read lousy business memos?


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