SAT Makeover Aims to Better Reflect Classroom Learning
Plans offer strong echoes of common core
The plans unveiled this week by the College Board for a redesigned SAT include substantive shifts aimed at making the exam more "focused" and "useful," including an emphasis on having students justify their answers with textual evidence, shunning "obscure" SAT words, making the essay optional, and covering fewer math topics but in greater depth.
The redesign also offers strong echoes of the Common Core State Standards, which board President David Coleman helped write.
In a March 5 announcement in Austin, Texas, Mr. Coleman said the new exam, scheduled to debut in the spring of 2016, will better reflect what students do in rigorous high school courses and what they need to master in preparation for college and a career.
"Admissions officers and counselors find the data from admissions exams useful, but are concerned that these exams have become disconnected from the work of high school and surrounded by costly test preparation," he said. "We've been listening to students and their families for whom these tests are often mysterious and foster unproductive anxiety."
The announcement by the College Board, which develops and administers the SAT, comes two years after the college-entrance exam's reach was first eclipsed by that of the rival ACT. For the class of 2013, 1.8 million students took the ACT, compared with 1.7 million taking the SAT.
Reaction to the planned changes was mixed, but Christina L. Theokas, the research director at the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group for low-income and minority students, applauded the effort.
"Overall, it's great that the College Board is taking responsibility for the SAT and really doing a major redesign—and not just doing tweaks, as they have in the past," she said. "This change really reflects more current conversation about what we want kids in high school to be learning and doing."
Some skeptics, though, view the shifts as largely driven by the SAT's shrinking market share.
"This is a PR maneuver to shore up the relative standing of the SAT against the ACT, and also a maneuver against test-optional colleges," said Joseph Soares, a professor of sociology at Wake Forest University, in Winston Salem, N.C., who has researched college-admissions tests.
About 850 colleges and universities now leave it up to students whether to submit entrance-exam scores with their applications.
Mr. Soares contends that the changes last made to the SAT, in 2005, were a failure that only widened the gap in performance between students with different family incomes. The planned redesign is not a fundamental change, Mr. Soares says.
"[The SAT] will still be ... weak or useless for predicting how well people do in college," he said.
'It Is Our Problem'
In addition to content revisions, the new SAT will not penalize students for wrong answers, but only give credit for correct ones—a move aimed at removing some of the strategy from test-taking. Also, the College Board will begin offering the test in some locations on computer. Furthermore, calculators will only be permitted for certain math questions.
In May 2012, when it was announced that Mr. Coleman would lead the College Board, he said that reshaping the SAT to better reflect the common-core standards would be a top priority. But the materials released by the College Board this week make no mention of the common core, and Mr. Coleman did not touch on the topic in his address.
Robert Rothman, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Alliance for Excellent Education, said that, as described, the SAT revisions would put the exam much more in line with the common-core standards. He said it was a "glaring omission" for the College Board not to mention the standards, which nearly all states have adopted, in the rollout.
The New York City-based College Board's announcement of the new SAT comes as the common standards for English/language arts and mathematics have drawn increased criticism across states. Indiana, for one, appears on track to void its 2010 adoption of the standards.
Meanwhile, lawmakers in other states, from South Carolina to New York, are considering plans to repeal adoption of the standards or delay their implementation.
During a question-and-answer session after his speech in Austin—where the South by Southwest education conference took place this week—Mr. Coleman addressed an inquiry about his silence on the new SAT's similarities to the common core.
"The crucial idea ... is this exam focuses on those few things where evidence is overwhelming that they're essential for college- and career- readiness," Mr. Coleman said. "And that resonates throughout the best of state standards, throughout the common core. ... I think it is time to focus more on the work that students need to do, and less on slogans."
A major theme in Mr. Coleman's presentation was the College Board's plans to go beyond the exam itself to expand opportunity for disadvantaged students.
"We cannot stand aside and say, 'We made a good test. It's not our fault what happens before and after,' " he said. "It may not be our fault, but it is our problem."
To encourage low-income students to apply to more colleges, four fee waivers for college applications will be given directly to eligible students, he said. Also, in an effort to reduce the advantage of costly test preparation, Mr. Coleman announced that students will have access to free online SAT-prep materials from Khan Academy.
At the same time, Mr. Coleman said one goal of the new SAT is to be less susceptible to test preparation and cramming.
"The SAT has been criticized for being too coachable in the past," said Barbara Gill, a member of the board of trustees of the College Board and the assistant vice president of undergraduate admissions at the University Maryland College Park. "This major change will make the content of the SAT more transparent so schools and teachers will have a better idea of what is on the SAT."
More details about the test specifications will be announced April 16.
The redesign work began over a year ago, and a new test was originally slated to roll out in the spring of 2015. The effort has involved hundreds of College Board staff members, as well as members of the organization from K-12 and higher education, according to board officials. Input also was garnered from more than 80 campus meetings in 2013.
The rival ACT announced last year that it would offer "enhancements" to its test in the spring of 2015, aligning it more closely with the common core and phasing in computer-based testing, said Paul Weeks, a vice president for customer engagement at ACT Inc., based in Iowa City, Iowa.
"ACT doesn't need an overhaul. We have always been curriculum-based and predictive," said Mr. Weeks, adding that the redesign of the SAT is a validation of the ACT approach.
Robert A. Schaeffer of FairTest, a group that has long been critical of the SAT, said in a statement that the SAT changes don't adequately address concerns that the exam fails to accurately assess low-income students, and that the tests are susceptible to expensive coaching.
The new SAT will be three hours long, with an optional essay of 50 minutes. The test now is three hours and 45 minutes, including the essay.
There will be three sections: "evidenced-based reading and writing"; mathematics; and the optional essay. Without a required essay, which was added in 2005 as part of a new writing section, SAT scoring will return to a 1600-point scale.
Mr. Coleman said that perhaps the most important change for students is that the penalty for wrong answers will be discontinued.
Ms. Theokas of the Education Trust said the writing test is of dubious worth because students are more concerned about the form and structure of the writing than its content. They can write factually incorrect statements and not reflect on real evidence, which isn't good writing, she said. Ms. Theokas also said making the essay optional is a good way to shorten what is a long test.
The College Board said the essay has not added value to predictions of college writing success. Admissions officers have been split about the usefulness of the score, so, in 2016, it will be up to colleges to require the essay score—and up to students whether to write an essay.
Writing will still be evaluated in the new SAT as part of an integrated reading and writing section. That section will have a strong focus on requiring students to analyze texts when they write, according to Carol Jago, a past president of the National Council of Teachers of English, who chairs the College Board's English academic advisory committee.
"This is more reflective of the kind of writing they will be asked to do in college," said Ms. Jago. It is also a "fairer" approach, she argues, because all students will be responding to a specific prompt.
Mr. Coleman said the College Board must take responsibility for the "unintended consequences" of how the SAT asks students to write on the current test. Since there is no shared source material, he notes, evaluation of the essay is only on the writing and not the quality of the reasoning or the accuracy of the examples.
"But that's not how we all work in the world of college and career, where every day we analyze source materials and understand the claims and supporting evidence," he said.
The vocabulary section is also getting a big makeover. In its overview, the College Board acknowledged that the current SAT is "focused on words that are sometimes obscure and not widely used in college and career." The revamped vocabulary section will focus more on relevant language students might actually use.
That change will also level the playing field, Ms. Jago argues. "What it rewards is not test prep, but wide reading," she said.
The 'Heart of Algebra'
In math, the new exam will narrow its focus to three areas the College Board deems essential to success in college and careers: problem-solving and data-analysis (using ratios, percentages, and proportional reasoning to solve problems in real-world scenarios); the "heart of algebra" (focusing on mastery of linear equations and systems); and what the College Board calls a "passport to advanced math."
That last section will emphasize the math needed to pursue further study and careers in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, Mr. Coleman said. It will examine students' familiarity with more complex equations and the manipulation they require.
Also, he explained the rationale for no longer allowing a calculator for all math questions. "The noncalculator section makes it easier for the SAT to assess students' understanding of [mathematical] ideas," Mr. Coleman said. "It rewards well-learned technique, fluency with calculation, and number sense."
That decision parallels plans by the two main common-core-testing consortia to allow calculators only on certain portions of their exams.
Some observers wonder how the big-picture explanation of the math changes will look in practice.
"I'm interested in getting a better understanding of [it]," said Ms. Theokas of the Education Trust. "It sounds like they are really simplifying the math. I'm curious how that translates into types of questions and the content kids are going to have to learn in high school to be college-ready."
Looking ahead, the "devil is in the details" as to whether the rhetoric will match the actual test, said Steve Syverson, a board member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and a former dean of admissions at Lawrence University, in Appleton, Wis.
For now, Mr. Syverson said, he remains a bit cynical.
"I feel the College Board operates and talks about something in a positive way, but part of its motivation is market share," he said. "If it's not window dressing, this is good stuff. How it plays out we won't know for a while."
Vol. 33, Issue 24, Pages 1, 14-15Published in Print: March 12, 2014, as SAT Makeover Aims to Reflect Classroom