SAT Changes: Facts at a Glance

SAT - Ma

The stack of SAT prep books that many students struggle against (M. Ma ’15)

In early March of this year, the College Board, which produces and administers several standardized tests, announced changes to their flagship test, the SAT.  The changes, which the College Board plans to implement in early 2016, are billed as an attempt to reach out to low-income college applicants.

Preparing for its test, the College Board reasons, is prohibitively expensive to those students.  To counter the problem, the College Board plans to provide two resources designed to lower the barriers.

Eligible low-income students who take the SAT will receive  fee waivers.  The College Board has yet to elaborate on both the nature of these waivers and its source of funding. Secondly, Khan Academy, a provider of massive open online courses, will produce SAT preparation materials available to all.

Overshadowing these announcements was the plan to change the test itself. Perhaps the most startling revision to the test is the removal of the guessing penalty, a source of consternation for test takers.

Another major development is the plan to offer the test in both print and online versions by 2016 alongside the format changes.  The writing section will be optional, and the SAT will return to its once-standard 1600-point scale.  The “Critical Reading” section will soon be renamed “Evidence-Based Reading and Writing,” and students will be barred from using calculators on certain math sections.

Other changes include a removal of  certain vocabulary words, specifically those that the College Board deems to be uncommon knowledge for students.  These words will be replaced with those judged to be frequently used in both college and beyond.

Additionally, reading and writing will be adapted to be more evidence-based, and in some sections students will be required to cite references.  The essay prompt will ask test-takers to analyze a source, rather than vaguely write about abstract ideas, making the section more like a typical English essay prompt.

Lastly, the math section will be honed down to just three topics: “problem solving and data analysis”, “the heart of algebra”, and “passport to advanced math”.

The College Board’s press release announcing these developments declares an intention “to focus on the few things that evidence show matter most for college and career readiness.”

For today’s SAT, affluence is still the best predictor of scores. Nor do those who score well on the SAT demonstrate that same success in college: it is widely accepted that a student’s high school GPA, coursework, and class rank are still superior predictors of college success.  College admissions departments are aware of this, calling into question the justification for the nationwide use of the SAT.

With this lack of correlation in mind, resistance against the SAT has begun to grow, along with the SAT-optional movement among college admissions departments.  In 2001, Richard C. Atkinson, then the president of the University of California, proposed that the University remove the SAT requirement for applicants.  He also proposed that the California public university system temporarily rely on the SAT IIs as its testing method until something better could be found.

When Dr. Atkinson put forth his proposal, the College Board’s president, Gaston Caperton, publicly fought Dr. Atkinson’s claims. As the largest state in the Union, California tends to set nationwide trends, particularly in regulation. If the California public university system—then made up of 130,000 undergraduates—had abandoned the SAT, the College Board would have been in serious trouble.

Faced with this possibility, the College Board ended up reforming the SAT in an effort to make it “more relevant,” a claim which is echoed in College Board’s reforms.

Today, Caperton is no longer the College Board’s president, but the omens from the California anecdote have become fact.  In 2011, more students took the ACT than the SAT for the first time in history, and this trend is continuing.  Though the ACT suffers from similar flawed correlations as the SAT, it is regarded as the superior test with respect to its academic relevance.

Meanwhile, the number of AP test-takers has been on the rise as students try every possible method to exhibit exceptionality, except for the SAT itself.  The College Board’s original product has become a stale household name, the test that everyone must take, yet from which few benefit.

With these changes, the College Board is once again patching up the SAT’s promise of equal-opportunity testing as it scrambles to forestall the inevitable.  There may come an admissions season when a test that is capable of fairly and accurately measuring ability becomes commonplace.  Until then, pick the flavor of snake oil that suits you better— just be sure to take some real medicine with it.

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