College Board President David Coleman announced last week that beginning in the spring of 2016, the college admissions test will return to its previous 1600-point scale, will have its essay portion be optional and will drop some of the obscure vocabulary it has traditionally used. The math section also will narrow its focus, students will not be penalized for incorrect answers and reading comprehension questions will weave in information from other subjects, such as history and science.
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Upon announcing the changes, Coleman said they were the result of an attempt to level the playing field for students and better align the test with what students actually learn. He said both the SAT and the ACT have become "far too disconnected" from American schools.
While the College Board maintains the changes stemmed from research as well as feedback from teachers, institutions of higher education and parents, Shaan Patel, director of SAT programs for Veritas Prep, says the changes also may reflect a desire to convince more students to take the SAT instead of the ACT.
"My opinion is this test will be easier than the current SAT and the College Board is betting on more students taking the SAT because of that," Patel says.
In September 2012, it was announced that for the first time in history more students took the ACT than the SAT (and that trend continued in 2013). A few months later in February, Coleman first announced major changes would be coming to the test.
Patel says there are many things about the new SAT that reflect the ACT: There will be no obscure vocabulary, the essay will be optional, no points are removed for incorrect answers and there will be more of an emphasis on textual evidence across disciplines. ACT President Jon Erickson said on hearing of the changes to the SAT, "They could've been talking about the ACT now."
"It's a good move that it's becoming easier in way, but it's also a very bad move in that I think it's sort of a race to the bottom now," Patel says, adding that "when and if" the ACT makes its next change, it might lower its standards to remain competitive against the SAT.
"You just don't want it to become where these two test-makers are [fighting] for students and the way they do that is by making their tests easier and easier," he says. "I think it loses a lot of the predictive value for colleges."
Andy Smarick, a senior policy fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote in a blog post that the use of obscure words in the SAT is invaluable, and they should not be cut from the test.
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"I agree with the College Board that graduates should possess functional language, and I appreciate that the SAT's use of 'arcane' language can unfairly advantage those ... who can pay for expensive test-prep courses," Smarick wrote. "I would just hate to see these words devolve into simple tools for enabling a student to pass a professor's class or succeed in her places of work. That's too narrow, too utilitarian for me."
Coleman responded to the post, saying the "beauty" of the test redesign is the "in depth command of words required in their multiple meanings, requiring a sensitivity to context."
"If kids learn words richly in this way through wide reading rather than flashcards, they are deeply prepared to widen their appreciation of the nuances of language," Coleman wrote.
Jim Rawlins, a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and director of admissions at the University of Oregon, says standardized tests always have been just one piece of the puzzle in judging an applicant's college readiness and will remain so, regardless of the changes to the SAT.
At the University of Oregon, Rawlins says the admissions office looks at a student's test scores together with his or her GPA. The university also looks at current students' test scores over time and compares them to their performance at the university. Those two methods help improve the admissions office's ability to predict a student's success, he says, although it may be more helpful for some students than others.
"Just because test scores aren't equally helpful in predicting how students will do, just as it doesn't mean they're useless, it also doesn't mean they're all-telling," he says. "That's the balance we always have to maintain."
As to whether the SAT changes are good or bad, and whether they will help better assess achievement and predict how successful a student will be in college, Rawlins says it's too soon to tell.
"We don't think we can characterize them as improvements or disasters or anything like that until we have a chance to see what the results are," Rawlins says. "Even if we start getting those new test scores in 2016 for our students who will start that fall, it's not as if we will suddenly know, 'Aha! This helped us more.' We won't know until we see how those students we admit with those new scores … do and see if it really did in retrospect add something to the predictiveness of this."
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Still, Rawlins says the SAT's narrowing focus on both mathematics and English language arts is a "double-edged sword." While the SAT never has explicitly focused on other things important in college admissions – such as social studies, science and foreign language – Rawlins says the combination of the new test and the Common Core standards could be troublesome.
"I do worry that if you combine what the College Board is saying with the fact that the Common Core discussions seem to be more and more focused on English and math, English and math, that maybe the cumulative effect of all this discussion of narrowing focus might bring us in students who aren't as much encouraged to be prepared broadly and to be thinking broadly about how everything hooks together," Rawlins says.
But both English and math teacher advocates say the new requirements of the SAT seem promising.
Linda Gojak, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and a veteran teacher of 40 years, says the changes have been long-needed and that the new SAT will give a "more realistic view" of what students have achieved in mathematics.
"Rather than a lot of topics that cover a wide variety of things, it appears that what they've done is really look at the topics that prepare kids not only for college … but also beyond college in mathematics that's really important, no matter what they're going to do," Gojak says. "That moves right along with what we've seen why our kids don't do well on international comparisons. We try to cover so much, and then we wind up repeating it and our kids just don't really deeply learn it."
Kent Williamson, the executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English, says the coming changes to the reading and writing portions of the exam are a good move. The current SAT's use of "arcane vocabulary" seemed to be a "bit of artificiality that was maybe put in place to segregate people with certain knowledge from others," he says, and didn't appear to be "a very good predictor of real student success."
Williamson says it is difficult for colleges to accurately determine a student's writing abilities from one timed writing test, for example. While the NCTE has in the past been critical of the timed essay requirement, Williamson says the changes to the now-optional essay – requiring students to analyze text, rather than asking an open-ended question – can indeed measure an important skill. But having just one sample is still too narrow of a scope, he says.
"If that becomes your only vehicle for measuring writing competence, it's a pretty narrow slice," Williamson says. "When you think about the range of writing students will be doing in college, it's one important piece, but it's just one piece. So in that regard, it is limited."
Williamson says it may be more realistic now, at a time when more digital tools are available to collect student information, for the College Board to collect several writing samples or a portfolio of work from students.
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"It just reveals so much more about their range and capacity for writing, and frankly the crispness of their thinking," he says. "If your business is predicting success in college, it's so much richer in offering insights about where students really are and what their potential is."
While some groups, such as the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, want to abolish the SAT entirely or make it optional for college admissions, both Rawlins and Patel say it helps round out the picture for colleges, particularly because GPAs are not comparable across schools. Additionally, for schools that receive a high volume of applications, standardized tests give admissions offices, especially those at elite colleges, a way to sort through applicants in a more comparable way.
"They absolutely need a standardized exam to compare students by," Patel says. "It's sort of a necessary evil. It's something that will never go away."