Pro Tip: Don’t Use What You Know about the Real World on the SAT

I have College Board’s Daily Practice for the SAT app on my phone, which I highly recommend to any student who’s going to be taking the test within the next year or so. Most of the time, it’s a helpful little tool that reminds you what SAT questions look like and lets you approach them one at a time. Today’s, though, was a doozy–and not in a good way.

Remember when College Board said they were making the new SAT more connected to the real world by using data sets that were grounded in actual science? The College Board’s own website says,

In response to evidence about essential prerequisites for college and career readiness and success, the redesigned SAT’s Math Test requires students to apply their mathematics knowledge, skills, and understandings in challenging, authentic contexts. Students taking the Math Test will encounter a range of disciplines and will be asked to address real-world problems drawn from science, social studies, and careers and demonstrate a capacity for sustained reasoning over the multiple steps required to answer many of the questions on the exam. In these ways, the Math Test also rewards and incentivizes valuable work in the classroom.

That’s a great premise, and we’d love to support it–if it were true! But you can’t take that literally. Today’s question is a math/calculator permitted problem and is rated difficult:

In 2012 a cheetah set a new record by running 100 meters in 5.95 seconds. What was the cheetah’s approximate average speed during this record-breaking run, in miles per hour? (1.6 kilometers = 1 mile)

A. 17 miles per hour
B. 34 miles per hour
C. 38 miles per hour
D. 60 miles per hour

Now, if you know anything about cheetahs, you know they can run really fast. Since I have a five-year-old who’s been obsessed with the TV show Wild Kratts! for a few years, I’ve heard a lot about cheetahs (and groundhogs and draco lizards).

But woe to the student who thinks, “I know something about cheetahs, and College Board has already told me that the best way to prepare for the SAT is to take challenging classes in high school–not to cram for the test with a test-prep course.” That student would choose option D, which, as it turns out, is wrong.

For an easy fix–and to maintain their integrity about real-world problems–the College Board could have rewritten the question to read,

In 2012 a cheetah was clocked running 100 meters in 5.95 seconds. What was the cheetah’s approximate average speed during this run, in miles per hour? (1.6 kilometers = 1 mile)

We do not always need to be concerned with the fastest, the best, or the record-breaking–and the College Board should know that. Math and reading questions that are based in real-world examples and concepts will usually be boring. Including a question that insists on a record-breaking number, then states the wrong number as the correct answer, doesn’t help students learn–it confuses them, and it’s dishonest.

The correct answer, according to the College Board, is C. Thanks to the Wild Kratts, even my kindergartener knows that a cheetah can top speeds of 70 miles per hour.

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