New SAT Launches

The redesigned test arrives, amid relative calm among test takers. But not all students seem fully aware of the much publicized changes.

March 7, 2016

The College Board gave the new SAT for the first time Saturday -- crucial not only for the students taking it but for the College Board. With more colleges than ever before going test optional and the ACT gaining market share, the changes in the test were designed to address longstanding criticisms.

The ultimate success of the changes won't be evident for a while, and will depend in part on scores and how different groups of students perform and how colleges view the results. But if the first test of the new test was to have it given without major glitches, the College Board may just have pulled that off.

Inside Higher Ed had reporters at two testing sites to talk to students as they left. Most students were tired and relieved to have the test over, and some feared that they had not done well on some sections. Those are of course the kinds of reactions one would find any time the SAT is given. Some students seemed unaware that the writing test is now optional, that the guessing penalty has been eliminated and that there are now free test-prep videos available. One student had "no clue" that scoring had changed. Of students who had taken the old SAT and this one, they were divided on whether the new test was better or easier.

Social media, where students vent about just about anything related to the SAT, was relatively quiet.

And surveys by the College Board and Kaplan confirmed that students were adjusting well to the changes in the test.

Among the changes in place Saturday, for the first time since they were announced two years ago:

  • The writing test involves analyzing evidence and not just responding to a prompt about one's experiences or values.
  • The writing test is optional.
  • Reading sections require citation of evidence.
  • The point scale is back 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 are no longer deducted for incorrect answers on the multiple choice part of the test. Until Saturday, one-quarter of a point was deducted for each incorrect answer.
  • Vocabulary words were changed to eliminate obscure language commonly known as SAT words.
  • 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 appeared previously.
  • Mathematics questions are focused on three areas: problem solving and data analysis, algebra, and passport to advanced math. The College Board says 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.

Another key change was that the College Board and the Khan Academy have offered free prep for the SAT, seeking to minimize the advantage that wealthier students, who tend to go to better high schools and who can afford to pay for coaching, have had on the exam.

At Dunbar High School, in Washington, Maia (a student from Virginia who, like many of those quoted here, didn't want her full name used) was taking the SAT for the first time and said that it "wasn't as bad as I thought it would be." She did find the time limits "confining," but said she managed.

Maia used the Khan Academy videos to prepare and said that if they hadn't been available, she might have paid for test prep elsewhere.

One student in Maryland said that "if you don’t have money to pay for a class, you’re usually just stuck buying a book or you’re on your own mostly, so this time it was really helpful that they had unlimited resources basically for anyone.”

At Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Md., several students said they were glad they had used the Khan videos, but several other students said they had never heard about the service. (In fairness to the College Board, many 17-year-olds report never hearing about things they may have been briefed on repeatedly.)

Plenty of other students said they stuck with test prep for which they paid. Duncan, who attends a well-respected Roman Catholic high school in the area, said of his paid tutor, “I think it helped a lot. He helped give me strategies to make it go faster.”

One student who knew about but didn't use Khan said, "I never got the chance to. I’m really busy. I didn’t even get to study that much, but now that I’ve seen the test, I know that I do need to study more, so it is something I would use in the future."

Of those who said parts of the test were difficult, mathematics was the section most commonly cited (and the section on which students were most concerned about running out of time).

A change that was uniformly popular was the end of the guessing penalty -- “I tried to write stuff down for all of them.” For some questions, the answers had to be written out, but “I definitely put an answer down for all of the multiple choice.”

“I did some silly things in the test,” said one student in Maryland who said she couldn’t do all the questions because she managed her time poorly. “I am so happy because I also read that they will not subtract a point if we do it wrong, so I just guessed the questions I was not able to answer.”

But at least one student who was taking the SAT for the second time appeared to have had the wrong information about guessing last time and this time. “If I didn’t know a question, I mostly likely left it blank, since they don’t count against that this time. Last time I had to guess because last time I was told they take points off for leaving it blank, but this time I was told they don’t.”

Another student, apparently unaware of the end of the guessing penalty, said, “I don’t really guess. I just leave them blank. If I don’t know the answer, I’m not filling in anything.”

Students were all over the place on the essay, with some saying they took it because they heard colleges required it, and others figuring they would give it a try. Still others were happy to have the option of ignoring it.

What the Surveys Say

According to the College Board, 463,000 students took the redesigned SAT last week (some ahead of Saturday).

The board conducted a survey of 8,089 students who completed the March SAT administration and compared the results on some questions to a survey after the March 2015 administration with the old version of the test. Among the results from the new survey:

  • 71 percent of students said the test reflected what they’re learning in school.
  • By a 6 to 1 margin, students said they preferred the format of the new SAT over the previous version of the test.
  • Compared with March 2015 SAT, there was a 19 percent decrease in the number of students that paid for test-prep resources.
  • Nearly half of all examinees who took the SAT Saturday said they prepared with Khan Academy, and 98 percent of those who did so said the videos were extremely, very or somewhat helpful.

Kaplan Test Prep conducted a survey of over 500 teens who took the new SAT on March 5 and found that most students (59 percent) generally gave the exam good marks for having questions that were straightforward and easy to follow -- a major goal for the new version of the test. At the same time, 58 percent of students said they found the length of the sections tiring. The Kaplan survey found that, despite the change in the essay becoming optional, 85 percent of students completed it.

The survey also found that 56 percent of new SAT takers had either already taken the ACT or were planning to do so. Further, 17 percent of test takers who were not previously planning to take the ACT said taking the new SAT had them reconsidering that plan.

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