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The College Board is planning to redesign the SAT, although the process is not expected to be speedy and the precise nature of the changes has not been determined.

In a letter sent to College Board members, David Coleman, the board's new president, said: "We will develop an assessment that mirrors the work that students will do in college so that they will practice the work they need to do to complete college. An improved SAT will strongly focus on the core knowledge and skills that evidence shows are most important to prepare students for the rigors of college and career. This is an ambitious endeavor, and one that will only succeed with the leadership of our Board of Trustees, the strong coordination of our councils and committees, and the full engagement of our membership."

Coleman previously led efforts to develop the Common Core State Standards, which he referenced in the letter. He both praised the SAT and said that it could be better.

"First administered in 1926, the SAT was created to democratize access to higher education for all students. Today the SAT serves as both a measure of students’ college and career readiness and a predictor of college outcomes. In its current form, the SAT is aligned to the Common Core as well as or better than any assessment that has been developed for college admission and placement, and serves as a valuable tool for educators and policymakers," Coleman wrote. "While the SAT is the best standardized measure of college and career readiness currently available, the College Board has a responsibility to the millions of students we serve each year to ensure that our programs are continuously evaluated and enhanced, and most importantly respond to the emerging needs of those we serve."

He did not offer any specifics, such as those that attracted so much attention when the SAT last had an overhaul in 2005. At that time, the changes included the addition of a writing exam and the elimination of the notorious analogy questions.

Coleman said that the next changes would help students and colleges by "focusing on a core set of knowledge and skills that are essential to college and career success; reinforcing the practice of enriching
and valuable schoolwork; fostering greater opportunities for students to make successful transitions into postsecondary education; and ensuring equity and fairness."

Late last year, in a talk at the Brookings Institution, Coleman was more critical of the SAT, and in particular of the writing test. He endorsed the addition of that portion of the SAT but questioned the way the current test rewards any argument, without requiring test-takers to use facts or material.

"I have a problem with the SAT writing. So if you look at the way the SAT assessment is designed, when you write an essay even if it’s an opinion piece, there’s no source information given to you. So in other words, you write like what your opinion is on a subject, but there’s no fact on the table. So a friend of mine tutors in Hong Kong, and she was asked by her Hong Kong students, where do you get the examples for the essay? She said, you know, it’s the American way, you make them up," Coleman said. "Now I’m all for creativity and innovation, but I don’t think that’s quite the creativity we want to inspire in a generation of youth. That is, if writing is to be ready for the demands of career and college, it must be precise, it must be accurate, it must draw upon evidence. Now I think that is warranted by tons of information we see from surveys of college  professors, from evidence we have from other sources, so I think there is good reason to think about a design of SAT where rather than kids just writing an essay, there’s source material that they’re analyzing."

Coleman's letter pledged that there would be many opportunities for educators to provide ideas on how to improve the SAT. For now, however, College Board officials declined to discuss the process.

Changes in the SAT affect a lot of people. Last year, 1.66 million students took the exam, a large test-prep industry is based on the SAT, and colleges' score averages are used (even if educators discourage the practice) for many high school students trying to decide if they have a shot at admission to a particular institution.

The years since the 2005 overhaul have seen their share of SAT debates. In 2008, the National Association for College Admission Counseling released a report that suggested that colleges should consider more carefully whether they really need standardized testing as part of the admissions process. While the report did not rule out the potential value of standardized testing in admissions, it suggested that many colleges really weren't gaining much from the requirement.

In the years since (as was taking place before), more colleges have dropped testing requirements -- sometimes entirely or sometimes for students with certain high school grade-point averages or who submit other materials. Almost without exception, the colleges that drop the test requirement report that most applicants still submit scores, but that those who don't tend to succeed at the same levels as those who provide scores. Further, many colleges report more minority applicants or more applicants over all following a decision to go test-optional.

Competition With the ACT

Several observers saw the College Board's announcement as a reflection of its increased competition with the ACT. Last year was the first in which more people took the ACT than the SAT. The margin was only about 2,000, but it reflected a significant change from the years of SAT dominance. The SAT and ACT maintain regions of strength, with the former strong in New England and the latter strong in the Midwest, for example. But the ACT is now seen as an option in all regions, and high school students in areas in which the SAT was once seen as the only choice now talk about the pros and cons of the two tests (or take both).

The language Coleman used to describe his goals for the SAT, with references to coursework, matches the language regularly heard by guidance counselors about which students might benefit from the ACT. They tend to talk about how students who work hard in rigorous courses but "don't test well" will do better on the ACT. (The College Board and the ACT jointly produce a "concordance table" that shows comparable scores on the two tests, but many students report doing considerably better on one test or the other.)

Nancy Griesemer, a private admissions counselor who writes about the process, said via e-mail that "I'm just assuming they are rapidly losing market share and need to move a little closer to what they can sell to the states for assessment purposes. This stuff snowballs and even my clients are heading in the direction of the ACT because they view it as more straightforward."

She predicted that the new SAT would look more like the ACT.

A spokesman for the ACT offered this statement: "As a policy, we don't comment on other assessment products in the industry. You may find it interesting, however, to know that ACT was founded 54 years ago because ETS and the College Board rejected E.F. Lindquist's proposal to change the SAT from an aptitude test to an achievement test. Dr. Lindquist, along with co-founder Ted McCarrell, subsequently decided to develop his own achievement test, which became the ACT in 1959. Dr. Lindquist's idea was that measuring what students have learned through their hard work would be just as effective as measuring their innate ability in predicting college success yet also offer other valuable information that schools and students could use to improve learning. We've been following that guiding principle since then, and we will continue to follow it into the future."

Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, and a longtime critic of the College Board, said via e-mail that he viewed the move "as an admission that the previous attempt to create a 'new Coke' was rejected by the marketplace, so it became necessary to 'reformulate' the product once again in order to remain competitive with the ACT."

Shaan Patel, director of SAT programs for Veritas Prep (a test-prep service) said via e-mail that there is risk for the College Board in changing the SAT relatively soon after the last overhaul. "Completely revamping the SAT in less than 10 years from its last makeover may be off-putting to the biggest stakeholders involved -- the students," he said. "Students would rather prepare for a test that has been consistent for many years, rather than prepare for a brand new game. The College Board could be shooting itself in the foot by revamping the SAT again, which would likely result in even more students choosing to take the ACT exam."


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