If you are a high school freshman or younger, the SAT you’ll eventually take will be quite different from the one that’s now in existence. Last week, the College Board, which produces and administers the SAT, announced that it will begin offering a revamped version of the test in 2016. The changes will come just eleven years after the SAT’s last major overhaul in 2005. That year, a writing section was added, which included multiple choice questions on grammar, usage, and word choice, as well as a 25-minute essay.
The 2016 SAT will make the essay optional and will give students 50 minutes to write it. With the essay no longer required, the SAT will once again have a perfect score of 1600. The multiple choice questions on the writing section will be combined with the current critical reading section to create an evidence-based reading and writing section. Additionally, there will be less emphasis on vocabulary, and rather than having to know the meaning of rarely-used words, the words tested will be ones commonly used in college and the workplace.
On the math section, there will be greater focus on data analysis, problem solving, algebra, and, in the words of the College Board, a “passport to advanced math”. While students now can use calculators on all parts of the math section, the new SAT will not allow calculators on some parts.
The change that may most excite future test-takers is the elimination of the SAT’s “guessing penalty”, which deducts 1/4 point for each wrong answer. While this practice is intended to deter students from guessing randomly, I’ve always said that it’s not a guessing penalty but rather a wrong answer penalty — the machines that score the test cannot tell whether you guessed, only if you got an answer wrong. With this change, it will be in students’ best interest to answer every question on the test, even if they run out of time and just fill in bubbles for the questions they don’t get to.
So why is the College Board making all these changes? The answer depends on whom you ask. Last year, for the first time in history, more students took the ACT than the SAT. That seems to be a major reason for the revisions, despite the fact that the vice chair of the College Board’s governing board told The Washington Post, “We’re not just chasing market share here, I can assure you that.”
College Board president David Coleman said the purpose of the redesign is to make the SAT more closely aligned with what students learn in high school. Before becoming College Board president, Coleman was instrumental in developing the Common Core Standards — national standards in math and literacy that have been adopted by 45 states and Washington, D.C.. Therefore, it makes sense that he’d want the SAT to be tied to these standards. Interestingly, measuring what students have learned in high school always has been part of the ACT’s mission.
The growth of the test-optional movement may also have contributed to the restructuring of the SAT. There are now over 800 colleges that do not require students to submit ACT or SAT scores to be considered for admission. Numerous studies have shown that the best predictor of college success is not standardized test scores, but high school grades. Furthermore, low-income students historically have not done as well on college admissions tests, and they typically cannot afford the test prep that helps their wealthier counterparts improve their scores.
Coleman cited disparities in access to test prep as another reason for the changes to the SAT. In addition to altering the test, the College Board will offer free online test prep as well as four college application fee waivers for qualified students.
As for whether these changes will keep more colleges from becoming test-optional and/or will help the SAT regain its footing as “the most widely used college admission test” — which the College Board’s website still claims the SAT is — only time will tell.