Early Reaction Rolls In on Redesign Plans for SAT

By Caralee J. Adams — March 06, 2014 6 min read
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The College Board’s announcement about its plans to redesign the SAT is starting to draw some early responses.

College Board President David Coleman outlined what he called a “high-level blueprint” for the new SAT in a March 5 speech in Austin, Texas, where the South by Southwest education conference is going on this week. Key shifts in the new SAT will include an emphasis on requiring students to support their answers with evidence, a deeper focus on fewer math topics, and plans to make the essay optional, as I explained in a previous blog post and as can be seen on the College Board’s website.

There will no doubt be lots of debate over the College Board’s plans in coming days, but here’s a quick sampling from some interviews I conducted shortly after the announcement.

Robert Rothman: Senior Fellow, Alliance for Excellent Education

Rothman said it was significant that this revision of the SAT puts the test much closer to the common-core standards. He said both the common core and the plans described by the College Board use the same evidence for what is necessary for success in college. But without seeing the actual test, it’s hard to know if the new SAT will indeed be aligned with the common core, he said.

Yet, since nearly all states have adopted the standards, he said it was a “glaring omission” for the College Board not to mention the common core in the rollout Wednesday. (As my earlier blog post explains, the SAT plans bear a strong resemblance to key priorities in the common core, a set of standards Coleman helped to write, but the College Board materials and Coleman’s prepared remarks did not address the matter.)

Rothman added that he believes the new SAT will not displace the new common-core assessments being developed by two state consortia because those tests will be broader and provide more information about different skills.

While the common core places great emphasis on writing, the SAT essay now is optional. “I wonder if that sends a mixed signal about the importance of writing,” said Rothman. Yet, the way writing was used in the SAT distorted what it was intended to measure and Rothman said he understands the College Board making changes, particularly if there was not evidence that the section added to the predictive value of the exam.

The biggest message beyond the changed content, said Rothman, was the College Board’s declared push to do more to address educational equity, including making availability free online test prep through Khan Academy. However, talk of the advantage that test prep provides and posting the new SAT test specs online may actually lead to more test prep business, as students will have a better idea of exactly what to study, said Rothman. “Parents are always looking for an edge and if they think paying $1,000 will give them that edge, they will still do it,” he said.

Seppy Basili: Vice President, Kaplan

For years, the College Board has gone to great efforts to say that test prep is not helpful, said Basili, who argues that Coleman’s remarks clearly reflect a change in attitude that will help the test-prep business. Providing free test-prep through Khan Academy and giving access online to the tests now, two years ahead of the expected new SAT rollout, will be helpful, he said.

“This is exciting. That openness you hear a lot now—that has not been the hallmark of the testing industry in the past and it’s welcome,” said Basili, noting that his company also provides free online resources, as well as classes and tutoring.

Performance on the SAT has been strongly correlated to family income and education, and Basili said that test prep can help close those gaps, as it emphasizes knowing the content, having a strategy, and building confidence.

Mike Cohen: President, Achieve

Cohen said the changes outlined for the SAT reflect the research on what kids need to know to succeed in college. But he cautioned that the SAT is not a common-core test.

“I think about all the politics going on with the common core that the argument about how [Coleman] masterminded all this stuff, I’m glad he didn’t mention the common core,” he said. The SAT should be about what predicts college success and it’s good that the College Board says it will more closely focus on what students are learning in the classroom, Cohen said. “All assessment systems are going to evolve,” in the next few years and the College Board’s job is not to drive instruction in the same way the state assessments are, he added.

“As the College Board intentionally organizes its resources, financially and technically, to support and improve preparation and higher level of opportunity for disadvantaged students, that’s an awfully important thing to do.”

Cohen applauded Coleman’s commitment to transparency, adding: “I don’t know if anyone thinks ACT is particularly transparent.”

Paul Weeks: Vice President, ACT Inc.

Weeks argues that many of the planned SAT changes validate features that have long been part of the ACT—being curriculum-based, relevant, giving credit only for right answers, and making writing optional.

“There has been a pattern of the College Board following our lead on a number of fronts,” he said. “We have to believe they are aware of the market share.”

Ten years ago, ACT had 40 percent of the college-admission testing market share, and now it has 54 percent.

Weeks added that he was surprised there was not mention Wednesday of the new SAT addressing science (the ACT offers a science section, while the SAT does not), that vocabulary wasn’t dropped altogether, and that reading and writing will be combined into one section, which he argues will make it difficult to compare past test performance to the new exam results.

When Coleman lumped together the SAT and ACT as being disconnected from high school curriculum, Weeks said that was an unfair characterization. “The ACT has reflected what is taught in the schools for years,” said Weeks.

Steve Syverson: Board Member, National Association of College Admission Counseling

Syverson, a member of NACAC’s board and a former dean of admissions at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., said he likes much of what the College Board had to say about the redesign, but the “devil is in the details.” While the idea of having seminal U.S. documents included on the test, for example, is laudable, it would have been more helpful to give a list of 15 books or documents that would be in the test, he said.

As for the message on test prep, Syverson argues that it was contradictory. On the one hand, there are changes made to the test so it’s not coachable, yet free test prep is now going to be available. Years ago, Syverson was involved in research with NACAC that determined individualized test prep can have a significant impact on college-entrance exam performance.

Working in admissions, Syverson said he doesn’t believe the college-entrance exams themselves are bad, but that there is too much emphasis on them. “It’s about use of the test results. I feel too many kids are stressing out too much,” he said. The way to alleviate that is to take test prep out altogether and have the exams truly be a reflection of what students are learning in the classroom and tell kids the best preparation is “to work hard and study in school,” added Syverson.

For now, Syverson said he remains a bit cynical and suspicious. “I feel the College Board operates and talks about something in a positive way, but part of its motivation is market share,” he said. For instance, Syverson wonders if by offering application fee waivers it hopes to drive more students to the test and create a revenue stream.

“If it’s not window dressing, this is good stuff,” he said. “How it plays out we won’t know for a while.”

The College Board plans to unveil more details on the new exam April 16.

Care to add your voice to the mix of commentators above? Post a comment below.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the College Bound blog.