( I can write about this subject with some authority because I have taken a keen interest in the SAT ever since my own children were preparing for it. For almost two decades, I have been helping students with the test and advising them about college admissions).
Earlier this month, the College Board announced long-awaited changes to the SAT.The new format SAT will debut in 2016 and the changes, which are wide-ranging, are mostly for the better. Here is a summary of the major changes:
_ The test will revert to the 1600-point scale. Instead of three areas of testing ( Math, Reading Comprehension and Writing each worth 800 points, for a total of 2,400 ), the revised format will test candidates in Math and ” Evidence based Reading”, 800 points each, total 1,600).
_ Math questions will test students on linear equations, complex equations or functions, ratios and proportional reasoning. Calculators will be allowed for only part of the test.
_ The emphasis of the test will be to reinforce basic skills in math and reading and make it more relevant to the skills needed in college. For instance, evidence based reading will require students to not just select the right answer but to justify it by choosing the quotation from the text that gives the best supporting evidence for their answer. The source document will have to be analyzed for evidence reasoning, persuasive or stylistic techniques. At least one reading passage will be from the nation’s founding documents or discussions of such texts.
_ The test will be available on paper as well as online.
_ The essay will be optional.
_ There will be no penalty for wrong answers.( At present, a quarter point is deducted for each wrong answer).
_ Low income students will receive fee waivers so that they can take the test and apply to up to 4 colleges at no cost. The College Board is also partnering with the Khan Academy to provide free online practice problems and instructional videos on how to solve them.
My first reaction on reading about the decision to change the SAT format was ” What took you so long ?” Anyone who is familiar with the SAT will agree that some of the questions, particularly in the sentence completions and reading comprehension passages were unfair, seemingly designed to trip up the student than to measure basic skills. Sometimes it felt as if the preparers were showing off their own knowledge, by including little used words like ” arcane” or British-English words like ” treacly” or “purveyor”. Not one in 50 American adults know the meaning of these words. What chance does a high school junior have? I’m glad the new SAT will focus on words and language skills that the student is likely to need in college and in real life.
The introduction of ” Evidence based reading” is also to the good because it focuses on the interpretation of reading material and why a particular answer choice is correct. In the current reading passages, some of the correct answer choices are subjective or else too difficult to arrive at in a limited amount of time.
I have mixed feelings about the deletion of the multiple choice writing sections. On the one hand, most high schoolers have very poor grammar and this section at least forced them to study it. On the other hand, most colleges seem to disregard the writing scores and consider only the Math & Reading scores when reviewing college applications. That being the case, there was really no point to retaining the Writing sections.
Making the essay optional is also a good idea. In the present format, the essay was the first section in the test and the many students who are not good at writing got off to a bad start which affected their performance in the rest of the test. Essay writing however is a good indicator of critical thinking and organizational skills which are central to doing well in college.By making the essay optional rather than dispensing with it entirely, the new test will give a chance to better students to showcase these skills. I hope , however, that future essay prompts will be easier; some of the present ones are unfairly difficult and would flummox even college graduates.
In the math section, dropping geometry questions and instead emphasizing arithmetic and algebra is a good idea. Except for those who intend to major in science and engineering in college, students have no further use for geometry. Algebra , on the other hand, requires logic skills and is a good indicator of college success. I also applaud the restriction on the use of calculators which will now be allowed only for part of the test. Many students are far too dependent on calculators and this inhibits their fundamental mathematical skills. Perhaps this new requirement is the first step in weaning them away from the use of calculators.
The attempt to make the test affordable for low-income students is laudable and the partnering with the Khan Academy in this endeavor is a stroke of genius. It should be a boon for motivated low-income students.
While the College Board may genuinely have been motivated by a desire to make the test more relevant, there is no doubt that they also had one other incentive to do so – the growing popularity of the ACT. For the first time last year more students took the ACT than took the SAT. The ACT was more popular with students because they felt it was easier and because they did not like the SAT deducting 1/4 of a point for wrong answers. ( That explains why the SAT is dropping that requirement). In my opinion, The math in the ACT is slightly easier but the reading sections has its own pitfalls. I do not feel the ACT is ” superior” or that it is a better measure of basic skills but that is another story and will not be discussed in this post.
Overall, the changes to the SAT are for the better. My one worry is that , in trying to make the SAT more popular with students, the College Board will dumb down the test to the point where it is irrelevant. Without analyzing sample tests, it is impossible to know if my concern is legitimate. Only time will tell.