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A New SAT

March 5, 2014

The College Board today announced major changes to the SAT, including a substantial revision to the writing test that was added in 2005 in the last major overhaul of the admissions test.

A number of the changes appear designed to respond to the growing chorus of criticism of the SAT. And the announcement is in some ways surprising for the extent to which it admits that some past changes didn't work. For example, the College Board news release on the changes notes that the writing test added in 2005 "has not contributed significantly to the overall predictive power of the exam."

Given that the SAT is designed to predict college success, and that the writing test was the most prominent change of the 2005 revisions, that's a fairly dramatic statement.

Among the changes announced today (and scheduled to take place in 2016):

  • The current writing test, in which students cite their own experiences or values to respond to a statement, will be replaced with one in which students respond to a passage of writing, and must analyze evidence. The students will be evaluated on both their analysis and their writing.
  • The writing test will be optional. Currently, even though many colleges ignore writing test scores, all students must take the writing portion of the test.
  • Reading sections, like the writing section, will see a shift in focus so that students must cite evidence from passages to support their answers.
  • The point scale will return to 1600, as it was before the writing test was added in 2005, when the scale changed to 2400. Those who take the writing test will receive a separate score for that.
  • Points will no longer be deducted for incorrect answers on the multiple choice part of the test. Currently, one-quarter of a point is deducted for each incorrect answer, so students engage in strategy games about when they have eliminated enough incorrect answers to make it worthwhile to guess.
  • Vocabulary words will eliminate "sometimes obscure" language that has been dominant and will be replaced by words "that are widely used" in college and the work place. In testing of words, the College Board will stress those for which meaning depends on context. The College Board gave as examples of such words as "synthesis" and "empirical."
  • Passages of writing used for various parts of the exam will be texts from significant moments in American history or science, not the somewhat random selections that now appear. Each exam will feature works such as the Declaration of Independence or a selection from the Federalist Papers, or Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."
  • Mathematics questions will be narrowed to focus on three areas: "problem solving and data analysis," algebra and "passport to advanced math." The College Board says that the much wider range of topics now featured will be eliminated so that students can study specific areas and feel confident they will be tested.
  • Print and digital versions of the SAT will be offered, whereas currently the test is paper only.

Other changes announced today go beyond the test itself. For example, the College Board announced a collaboration with the Khan Academy in which the latter organization (which produces well-regarded educational videos) will produce 200 videos that cover topics related to the new SAT.

And, as is the practice for the Khan Academy, those videos will be available free. Historically a criticism of the SAT has been that wealthier students can afford coaching. Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, issued a statement in which he said: "For too long, there's been a well-known imbalance between students who could afford test-prep courses and those who couldn't." Khan said that his services would make "truly world-class test-prep materials freely available to all students."

The College Board also announced a plan to provide four fee waivers for college applications for all low-income students. Most colleges already waive fees for low-income students, but some experts have said that eligible students don't even apply for the waivers, and are discouraged from applying.

For the College Board, this overhaul of the SAT comes at a challenging time. An increasing number of colleges have gone "test optional" in admissions. Just last month, a report found that submitting or not submitting test scores at test-optional colleges makes "virtually no difference" for a college in making admissions decisions based on high school grades.

Further, the SAT has been losing market share to the ACT. Historically the SAT has been the dominant player, but for the last two years, more high school seniors have taken the ACT than have taken the SAT. The ACT, historically strongest in the Midwest and the South, has seen growth nationwide. But it's also the case that for many of the country's most elite colleges, the SAT remains the admissions score submitted by most applicants.

Advocates for the ACT have historically said that it is less coachable and more directly linked to students' performance in rigorous high school courses.

The new president of the College Board, David Coleman, who set off the process of revising the SAT, played a key role in the development of the Common Core State Standards, which ACT has said its test is well designed to reflect.

In a copy of remarks prepared for delivery today, Coleman acknowledged many problems with the SAT. But he also said that all of the problems with the SAT in its present form are also problems for the ACT.

"It is time to admit that the SAT and ACT have become disconnected from the work of our high schools," Coleman said. "And we've also been listening to students and their families for whom these tests are often mysterious and filled with unproductive anxiety. They are skeptical that either the SAT or the ACT allows them to show their best work. And too many feel that the prevalence of test prep and expensive coaching reinforces privilege rather than merit."

The College Board provided reporters with advance copies of Coleman's text and materials about the SAT redesign, but demanded written affirmations that none of the information would be shared. So this initial article was prepared without discussing the developments with experts on admissions, including College Board competitors or critics. This article will be updated today and tomorrow to include interviews with such individuals.

Writing Revision

The changes in the writing section may be most immediately visible to test takers.

The writing section was added in 2005 after a revision of the test prompted by a speech in 2001 in which Richard Atkinson, then-president of the University of California, suggested that his system's campuses end SAT requirements for admissions. That prospect prompted the College Board to adopt a number of changes (and kept the University of California on board requiring the SAT).

But the format -- in which students simply respond to a prompt, without regard for facts -- has frustrated many writing experts. The National Council of Teachers of English issued an analysis criticizing the writing test. Les Perelman, a writing instructor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, boasted of how he coached students to write nonsense essays that still received good marks from SAT graders.

The essay approach announced today presumably would not be as vulnerable to students writing silly statements and getting high scores.

In its press materials, the College Board said that admissions officers were "split" on the value of the writing test, with some finding it "useful" and others not.

Not only is the College Board changing its approach to the essay, but it is starting an awards program, which it says will be modeled on the Pulitzer Prizes, for student analytical writing.

Update: Early Reactions

Initial reactions to the announcement were mixed. Many on Twitter praised the Khan Academy relationship.

Philip Ballinger, associate vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions at the University of Washington, and a member of a NACAC commission that urged colleges to be certain they need standardized tests in admissions, said via email: "Overall, I am definitely pleased -- especially around the changes relative to test preparation. Adding clarity and transparency, and transforming 'test prep' into a form of learning, are useful and helpful developments. I applaud the Khan Academy association; I think it will offer students a fabulous learning opportunity connected to preparing for the new SAT."

Akil Bello, co-founder of Bell Curves, a test-prep company in New York City that works primarily with low-income students, said he wanted to see what the College Board actually delivers. He said that "theoretically," the changes sounded good, especially making the SAT more transparent and easier to understand. During Coleman's talk, which was webcast, Bello tweeted that he was surprised by the way Coleman mentioned the ACT. "Coleman keeps dragging the ACT under the bus with him each time he talks about the flaws in the #SAT," Bello wrote.

Asked about this, Bello said that he doesn't see the ACT having the same problems as the SAT. "ACT feels more comfortable to most students in high school," he said. He said Coleman was "marketing" to imply that all tests have the same problems.

Bello also said that while he supports the work of the Khan Academy, he works with many students who don't have Internet access or laptops at home, or have much access to them outside of school. "Khan may not help them," he said.

The College Board is getting credit for talking to its critics. Perelman of MIT said that, to his surprise, Coleman invited him to talk shortly after he was named to lead the College Board. And he said that he found Coleman receptive to his ideas.

"Getting rid of what was a horrible writing test is in itself good," Perelman said. He said that it remains to be seen whether standardized testing is the best way to evaluate writing. Perelman said colleges would be better off asking applicants to submit all drafts (including teachers' comments) on an actual paper or papers they wrote in high school. Still, Perelman said, eliminating the current version of the writing test on the SAT is real progress.

 

 

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