Overhauled SAT Could Shake Up School Curricula

By Sean Cavanagh — July 10, 2002 7 min read
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The first anxious teenagers won’t lay their hands on the new, revamped version of the sat for three years. But the impact of the decision to overhaul the nation’s most widely used college-entrance exam is likely to reverberate in high school classrooms, admissions offices, and “test prep” courses well before then.

Trustees of the College Board agreed two weeks ago to overhaul the test in an effort to make it show more accurately what students learn in high school, and how prepared they are for college.

Beginning in 2005, the test, officially called the SAT I, will drop two of its most challenging—and for many students, dread-inducing—sections: quantitative comparisons and verbal analogies. The revised exam will feature a 20- to 30-minute written essay, multiple-choice grammar questions, and a section devoted to higher-level mathematics, such as advanced algebra.

As students are forced to adjust, educators such as Josette C. Surratte anticipate that high schools soon will be held to tougher standards, too.

“It will force high schools to evaluate the time they allot to composition,” said Ms. Surratte, who teaches at Teurlings Catholic High School in Lafayette, La. “I’m really excited—I’m an English teacher. We’re already teaching [classes that emphasize writing], and now it’s validated. Now, there’s a reason for it.”

Analogies Scrapped

Her interest in the new test is twofold. Ms. Surratte is the director of a summer camp in Berkeley, Calif., that prepares teenagers for the SAT’s rigors.

For 10 days, students at the camp, run by a private company called Education Unlimited, take mock exams and undergo drills, listen to lectures and flip through vocabulary- building flashcards aimed at boosting their scores. They arrive from as far away as Singapore and Germany, though about 70 percent of them are Californians, and they each pay about $1,500, Ms. Surratte said.

Lia K. Marshall, 15, arrived at the improve-your-score center from the nearby city of Alameda. A junior in high school this fall, she will be too old to take the new SAT, though she wishes she could. She sees the current analogy section—in which students are asked to identify the connection between pairs of words—as poorly designed and irrelevant.

“A lot of the time, the relationships are very confusing. There could be more than one,” she said. “We never do analogies in school. We have to prepare for it.”

Complaints like Ms. Marshall’s were at the heart of the College Board’s June 27 decision to overhaul the exam. The new version has three major changes:

  • A new section called the SAT Writing Exam will be added. That test will include an essay—similar to what now appears on the SAT II test—and multiple-choice grammar questions. The SAT II tests students in specific subject areas, and many of the nation’s most selective colleges require it.
  • he current SAT Verbal Exam will become the SAT Critical Reading Exam. Analogies will be eliminated; short reading sections will be added to existing, longer reading passages.
  • The SAT Math Exam will be broadened to cover three years of high school, and quantitative problems will be scrapped. Instead of simply quizzing students on geometry and Algebra 1, the new test will incorporate questions from Algebra 2 and other, higher-math courses.

Eliminating analogies will put more emphasis on critical reading in a wide range of subjects, such as science, history, and the humanities, College Board officials say. Higher-level math was added because 97 percent of all college-bound seniors take math through Algebra 2, and quantitative comparisons are rarely taught, board officials said.

“We believe it will be more closely aligned with classroom practices,” said Chiara Coletti, a spokeswoman for the College Board, in New York City. “It will increase the SAT’s power to predict college success.”

Some observers say the test also will force high schools to change—particularly those that pride themselves on getting their graduates into top colleges. Some schools may have to alter curricula to make sure students take higher-math courses before taking the SAT— usually during their junior or senior years, some said.

“Schools will be pushed to make sure students get their courses on time,” said Seppy Basili, a vice president at Kaplan Inc., one of the nation’s biggest test-preparation companies.

On the whole, he saw the revamped test as an improvement. “It’s a step in the right direction. The SAT should change,” Mr. Basili said. “It should reflect what we think is important.”

Questions of Bias

But critics say the new SAT would offer no more accurate a test of high school learning than the current model. Students still will be able to master the material through test-prep courses, they argue.

“The new changes will help the College Board sell the test, but they won’t help the test,” said Christina Perez, a spokeswoman for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a nonprofit organization in Cambridge, Mass., devoted to eliminating what it sees as flaws in standardized tests and changing the way those exams are used.

Her organization contends that the test is biased: She points to studies showing that black and Latino students score lower than white students on the current test’s math and verbal sections, even those from comparable income groups. With the changes, Ms. Perez argued, “students from more affluent families will get even more of a leg up.”

In addition to adding 30 minutes to the existing three-hour test, the revised SAT is expected to boost registration costs by another $8 to $12, from the current fee of $26, another blow to poorer students, critics say.

About 1.3 million high school graduating seniors take the college-entrance exam each year, and an estimated 1 million or so take its competitor, the ACT. The SAT has been rejiggered at least 10 times in its 76- year history, with the most recent makeover in 1994.

A key proponent of the latest changes was Richard C.. Atkinson, the president of the University of California system, who last year condemned the SAT as doing little to encourage classroom learning. He proposed discarding the test scores as a requirement for entry to California universities—which serve more than 148,000 undergraduates and represent the largest market for the assessment in the country.

California’s stance sent an unmistakable warning to the College Board, some said.

“If a big state like California drops the SAT, it’s over,” said John Katzman, the chief executive officer of the Princeton Review in New York, one of the nation’s largest test-prep companies.

‘A Transforming Event’

Mr. Atkinson said he was “delighted” with the changes. Currently, applicants to the UC system already are required to take a writing test, as part of the SAT II.

But the university president predicted the new exam will encourage California students to take subjects like higher-level math more seriously. And it could have a dramatic impact on writing instruction in high schools across the nation, he said.

“It sends a message to all students that they need to start writing early in their career,” Mr. Atkinson said. “I believe it’s a transforming event in the nature of education.”

Backers of the new essay also say it will give colleges an honest gauge of the writing ability of high school students. Too many college applicants today have the essays they turn in on college applications polished or rewritten by parents, friends, and even private companies, admissions officials say.

Others, however, remain skeptical of the new-look SAT. Students will be able to simply churn out cookie- cutter writing samples in the same way they practice for analogies and quantitative math now, they contend.

“It’s a shallow essay,” Mr. Katzman said. “It’s, ‘Can you write a five-paragraph-length essay?’ That’s not a test of writing ability.”

Test-preparation companies are likely to see big profits from the overhauled SAT, said Mr. Basili of Kaplan, which is based in New York City. Business soared for his company the last time the College Board changed the test’s format, he recalled.

Mr. Basili also predicted that students who could afford to pay for specialized SAT classes would have a clear advantage. Even if the question posed on the written essay was relatively straightforward— sample questions ask test-takers simply to write a well-organized composition, choosing either side of an argument—students who understand the rules of the game beforehand would fare better, he said.

“Students who prepare for the essay know what they’re going to write, going in,” Mr. Basili said. “The ones who don’t might spend the first seven or eight minutes figuring out, ‘Should I be for it, or against it?'—which is completely irrelevant.”

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A version of this article appeared in the July 10, 2002 edition of Education Week as Overhauled SAT Could Shake Up School Curricula