College Board changes SAT to look a lot more like ACT

The new SAT no longer penalizes wrong answers or requires an essay. Responding to critics, the College Board offers help to low-income students, including free test-prep classes.

Eric Gay/AP
College Board President David Coleman announces updates for the SAT college entrance exam in Austin, Texas, on Wednesday.

The College Board announced a major redesign of the SAT exam Wednesday – the first since 2005 – as well as new efforts to support low-income students in college readiness and applying to college.

The new test, which will be rolled out in 2016, will no longer require an essay, though it will still be optional; will eliminate the current penalty for wrong answers; will focus math on three key areas aligned with college readiness; and will replace obscure vocabulary words with ones students are more likely to use consistently.

In certain ways, the changes announced Wednesday will bring the SAT more in line with the ACT, the other widespread college admissions exam, which recently overtook the SAT in popularity. The ACT also has an optional essay and no penalty for wrong answers.

“These are all things the ACT has done for decades,” says Seppy Basili, a vice president at Kaplan Test Prep, noting that the new exam will also include more analysis, more writing within a context, editing, and fewer abstractions. “It does reflect what students do in school and is the fairest way to test students.”   

The changes also are an attempt to address some of the criticisms the SAT has faced over the years, including the charges that students who can afford high-priced test preparation can improve their scores, that the test is disconnected from the work of high-school classrooms, and that it lacks transparency – all concerns that College Board President and CEO David Coleman addressed.

“While we build on the best of the past, we commit today that the redesigned SAT will be more focused and useful, more clear and open than ever before,” he said in announcing the changes. “The real advance is to make an SAT that openly rewards the best of high school work and that invites far more productive preparation on the part of students and teachers.”

Mr. Coleman also discussed the degree to which well-prepared, low-income students still don’t apply to college or take Advanced Placement exams for which they’re qualified. In response, the College Board is increasing the number of students to whom it sends admissions fee waivers, so that they can apply for free to four colleges, and is also launching a campaign to get qualified low-income and minority students to take AP or other advanced courses.

In this year’s AP computer science exam this year, Coleman noted that just 20 percent of test-takers were girls. In 11 states, not a single African-American student took the exam, and in eight states, not one Latino student took it.

“While this may not be our fault, it is our problem,” Coleman said, a statement that he echoed later while discussing the inequalities of costly test preparation, long a source of criticism for high-stakes college exams like the SAT.

“It is time for the College Board to say in a clear voice that the culture and practice of costly test preparation that has arisen around admissions exams drives the perception of inequality and injustice in our country,” Coleman said, also announcing a new partnership with Kahn Academy, which will begin offering free courses of preparation both for the current SAT and the new one.

Sal Kahn, the founder of the academy, emphasized that the test preparation it will offer will be not only free but high quality. “Our intention in this partnership is that this will be the best thing out there,” he said. “We hope to collectively make the playing field much more level.”

But critics of the SAT, and of the culture around high-stakes admissions exams in general, say that the changes announced Wednesday don’t go far enough.

Many free web-coaching options already exist, notes Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest in Boston, a critic of standardized testing. But those offerings haven’t made a dent in the share of high-priced coaching, which charges upwards of $1,000, and he doubts the entrance of Kahn Academy will change that.

And while Mr. Schaeffer says that some of the changes to the test announced Wednesday are undoubtedly positive and more consumer-friendly, they don’t come close to addressing the fundamental issue of how many institutions and scholarships misuse the scores. Often, they require minimum SAT score cutoffs, for instance, despite the fact that they have been shown to be a poorer predictor of student success than grades or other measures.

“Good intentions and good rhetoric doesn’t deal with the fundamental problem with the SAT in specific, and the college admissions testing game,” Schaeffer says.

Coleman emphasized that the SAT and similar tests “should never be used alone to make decisions about a person’s life and future.”

But Schaeffer says that too many institutions still misuse the test scores, with "particularly harmful impact on opportunities available to African-Americans, Latinos, low-income students, and students with special needs." He says he'd like to see the College Board start refusing to send scores to the ones that do.

Other notable changes that will be incorporated in the redesigned SAT, which will be fully released on April 16:

  • In reading and writing, students will be asked to support answers with evidence.
  • The optional essay will ask students to analyze a source document, rather than simply having them offer opinions not backed up by evidence, as it did in the past.
  • The math section will draw from fewer topics and focus, in particular, on three areas: ratios, percentages, and proportional reasoning to solve problems in real world situations; linear equations and systems; and complex equations or functions that lead into advanced math. Calculators will only be allowed on some portions of the exam.
  • The reading section will use source documents from a wide range of disciplines, including science and social studies.
  • Each exam will include a passage drawn from the founding documents of America or the “great global conversation” they inspire – texts such as the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, and “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr.
  • The scoring will revert back to a scale of 1600, with a separate score for the optional essay.
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