Big changes coming for the SAT – What do they really mean?
On Wednesday, the College Board announced a major overhaul of the SAT in what will be the second revision of the college entrance exam in less than ten years. Substantial changes include:
- The test will again be scored out of 1600, and the penalty for guessing will be eliminated
- Some of the more obscure vocabulary words are being thrown out and replaced with words that are commonly used in the academic and professional worlds
- The essay portion of the test will now be optional and source-based, and students choosing to complete it will have 50 minutes, rather than 25, to do so
- Math questions will focus on three main areas: problem solving and data analysis, algebra, and real-world math related to the design, technology, and engineering fields
Perhaps the most substantial change is that the new test will be closely aligned with what high schools are teaching. It will require students to analyze nonfiction texts, build an argument using evidence, and apply math concepts to real life situations; all skills that are emphasized in the Common Core State Standards. The alignment between the new SAT and the CCSS is not surprising, as David Coleman, a key architect of the Common Core, now serves as President of the College Board. The goal for the redesign was to create an SAT that is more transparent, focused, and closely tied to the work that students do in school every day. The College Board believes the test should move toward evidence-based thinking and reinforcing the skills that students should have already learned in high school, and move away from the need for test taking tips, tricks, and strategies that make the test prep industry so profitable and allow affluent students whose families can afford expensive tutors and intense coaching to “game” to SAT. The College Board is also partnering with Kahn Academy to offer free online test preparation materials in an attempt to level the playing field for SAT-takers and curb exorbitant spending on test prep.
While the College Board’s goal of reducing inequality is certainly admirable, we have to ask – how much will these changes really matter? The SAT is becoming less and less relevant in college admissions decisions now that over 800 colleges and universities have “test optional” admissions policies. Even among students who are still required to submit test scores for college admissions, the SAT is declining in popularity. For the last two years more students have chosen the ACT over the SAT for their college admissions test (although this could change now that both tests focus on what students have learned in school). I am also relatively unconvinced that changing the test will rein in the culture of test prep hysteria among parents. This new SAT might be more difficult to “teach to” but that’s not going to stop affluent parents from purchasing every book, tutor, or service that might help their children gain an edge. Changing the test is not going to kill the test prep industry, as the College Board seems to hope it might.
The bright spot seems to be that the test is moving toward aligning with what students are actually learning in school. Since high school grades are routinely given more weight in college admissions, it just makes sense to test students on material that matches up with what they have learned, rather than arcane words they may never see again after SAT day. This realignment and the availability of free online prep materials are steps in the right direction, even if they don’t substantially change the culture of college test preparation. — Patricia Cambell