Will the new SAT earn higher scores?

On Wednesday, PSAT-takers get the first look at an SAT exam overhaul designed to align with real school skills and improve low-income students' results. 

Eric Gay/ AP
In this March 2014 photo, College Board President David Coleman unveils changes to the SAT intended to make the exam a better reflection of skills students learn in high school and will need in college. The changes, the first since 2005, will be first seen on the March 2016 exam.

More than a million high-schoolers packed up their pencils, calculators, and ID Wednesday to take the PSAT, the “preliminary” SAT exam that prepares students for the real deal.

But while some students may fret over how SAT scores impact their chances of admission to a top school, educators are watching to see whether a revamped exam that emphasizes “real world” learning can level the admissions playing field.

This summer, College Board President David Coleman unveiled a new SAT, the first major change since 2005, scheduled to roll out in March 2016. PSAT-takers, who sit for the exam on October 14 and 28, will be the first to get a taste of the test’s new emphasis on curriculum-based learning and skills, rather than arcane vocabulary, or answer choices that reward test-strategy preppers. “SKILLED IT,”  the Board website announces. 

Major changes include more vocabulary in context and a focus on critical thinking: students are asked to analyze texts’ use of evidence, particularly in the optional, but more demanding, essay that replaces the 2005 revamp’s brief, opinion-based essay that college admissions officers weren’t sure what to make of

Why the changes? As another slogan says, “Skills Aren’t Bought. They’re learned,” reflecting that the Board has paid attention to years of criticism that high scores reflect parental income more than ability. 

Test-prep is a $4.5 billion industry, according to Time, that rewards families with time and money for expensive extracurricular courses with higher scores – and, in turn, admission to the college of their choice.

But rich kids’ score gains also come from alleged cultural bias in some questions (asking students about “regattas,” for instance) and the overall, dramatic differences in the quality of schools attended by wealthier (and often whiter) students versus their disadvantaged peers. 

The SAT is serious about reducing that opportunity gap, and has partnered directly with Khan Academy to produce free, online test resources aimed at keeping low-income students in the loop about test changes, techniques, and application info. Schools and nonprofits like the Boys & Girls Clubs of America will have help linking students with the “Official SAT Practice” to make sure it actually winds up in their hands, or screens.

These are the types of revisions requested for years, motivated by the idea that questions aligned with high school classes would more faithfully predict college performance, which is, in theory, what admissions committees are really after.

In the past, SAT designers faced criticism over its supposed ability to forecast college success. Studying student outcomes at schools where SAT score submission is optional – a rapidly expanding field – researcher William C. Hiss found that the test was more effective at winnowing down an applicant pool, partially by scaring off students without stellar scores, than actually predicting how they’d do on campus.

So, can a free prep program and meatier questions fix all of that, while creating a more equitable admissions game?

Skeptics say no.

Although there is little data from the past decade, previous studies suggest that test prep’s claims are inflated: on average, students who prep for SATs see gains of around 30 points, possibly minimizing the potential impact of the Khan partnership. 

So if the ‘rich kids prep’ explanation can’t completely account for their SAT advantage, educators and test makers alike will have to tackle a far messier task: creating equal opportunity for K-12 students in the classroom all year long, not just on test day.

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