The New SAT: What Will the Test Look Like?

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March 13, 2014

Last Wednesday, March 5, David Coleman, President of The College Board, announced a major overhaul to the SAT college entrance exam. In Spring 2016, our students will see a completely different type of test.  If you have kids in high school, this information seems drastic. But this change’s impact could be felt all the way down to those children still in diapers.

Why Change It?

Standardized college entrance exams have come under fire for many reasons. When the SAT first came out eighty years ago, The College Board designed more of an intelligence test than a test of knowledge. Instead of giving access to more people in general, they wanted to identify individual students with above average ability who might have been overlooked.  But the needs and values of colleges have evolved, leaving the test out-dated.

Many colleges made test scores optional when they found no real correlation between scores and performance. A high test score did not predict students’ success in higher education. In fact, statistics show an alarming correlation between family income and higher scores. In every subject, each time a student’s (or their family’s) income goes up, their scores jump as well. This tells us that a high score can be most predicted by student’s ability to buy test prep which, in Coleman’s words, “reinforces privilege rather than merit.” He wants to even the playing field.

You can’t ignore the business side of the issue, though. More students now opt to take the ACT, the SAT’s competitor, than ever before. Between colleges’ move toward GPA and transcripts and the loss of test takers to competition, the company needed to make a change.

What Will the Test Look Like?

Questions will now be aligned more to the classroom learning of someone who followed “rigorous coursework.” Reading and writing prompts will require real world analysis and evidence-based answers from many types of source material including scientific and historical documents. Students will not see the infamous vocabulary words that few people use or unrecognizable documents that are not publicly available. Instead, words more useful in college and career work, like “synthesis” and “empirical,” and familiar documents from “Founding Documents or the Great Global Conversation,” like the Declaration of Independence or Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, will be used.

Kids will only be able to use a calculator for some of the Math sections. However, they have narrowed down the huge range of mathematical topics into a focused few that have been shown to be useful in college and beyond.

Students will be able to take the test on paper or digitally. There will still be a time limit but no more penalties for incorrect answers. The score reverts to the old out of 1600 rather than the newer 2400, although the essay, now optional, will be scored separately. You can find a full break-down comparison on The College Board.

How Does This “Level the Playing Field?”

The College Board hopes that by removing some of the more obscure information and writing questions that look like what students see in school, any student that works hard to learn in their classes will perform well on the test. They’ve taken some of the guess work and “gaming” out of testing by telling students what to expect, like certain math subjects and historical documents.

Additionally, they partnered with the very popular Khan Academy to offer FREE test prep online, giving access to all income groups. According to its founder, Salman Khan, their free program is not going to be “just as good” as expensive prep courses, but will be better than them because they are working in partnership with test makers.

What Are People Saying?

Reactions to a more curriculum-based test are mostly positive, if skeptical. Nearly everyone praises the involvement of the Khan Academy, which has developed a strong reputation for teaching and equal access. Of course, people have already expressed their doubts about the test itself.

Overall, the newness of this announcement leaves us to watch its progress. Standardized tests will never be perfect but we will see if The College Board can keep it relevant. Parents, don’t panic but plan accordingly!

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