Changes to the SAT for Spring 2016


The College Board—the company that creates and administers the SAT—has finally realized that the SAT can’t keep pace with the ACT. The SAT has lost its position as the number one standardized test in America. The ACT is an achievement test designed to test what a person has learned, instead of reasoning skills that the SAT claims to test. Now, all of the official literature from the College Board states that it is changing the SAT in order to better align the test with what students learn in high school. In fact, the changes will make the SAT closer to the ACT in just about every way.

First, let me go through the litany of things wrong with the current SAT. To begin, each correct question earns one point and each incorrect answer takes away 1/4 of a point. The SAT instituted this practice to eliminate the benefit of guessing, but this penalizes educated guesses. The reading section also contains passages of old fiction with questions that ask about the mood and what a character thought about something. Next, the vocabulary section includes a variety of words that very few high school students would use in common parlance. Additionally, the math section contains things I haven’t studied since eighth grade or freshman year in high school. And the test begins with an essay. A 25-minute essay at 8 AM on a Saturday? Yes, of course, we all know that everyone produces his or her best writing at that hour.

Now that I’ve established what is wrong with the SAT, I have good news. All of that will change in the spring of 2016. Incorrect answers will no longer count against the score, just like the ACT. The reading section will become an “evidence-based reading and writing” section, thereby eliminating the writing section and reverting to the 1600 point scale that the SAT had previously. In addition, the passages will come from many disciplines such as the sciences and social studies, along with fiction and non-fiction literature. The ACT has always pulled their reading passages from varied sources. The vocabulary will also become less esoteric, akin to words used in college courses: the ACT does not have a vocabulary section.

The essay will become optional as well, and will take 50 minutes to complete instead of 25. The ACT essay—which has always been optional—takes 30 minutes to complete. For the new SAT, the test taker will be asked to analyze a historical document instead of presenting one’s opinion about an issue. The ACT essay asks the writer to consider both sides of an issue, or even a third option, leading to more analytical essays—an approach that the SAT seems to find worth copying.

The changes to the math section—cutting the current set of topics to problem solving and data analysis, algebra, and Passport to Advanced Math (whatever that means)—also are a welcome improvement. The current SAT math section contains a very wide range of topics, ensuring that the test-prep industry has many clients.

Overall, despite the College Board’s supposed motives to improve the test, what it is really doing is making the SAT more like the ACT. I welcome this change. The SAT was terrible. I could never write a decent essay in 25 minutes. Analyzing fiction is not my forte. I haven’t worked with geometry since freshman year. The vocabulary section involved some studying from a prep-book, but mostly luck.

In addition to the changes to the test itself, the test-preparation industry will undergo many changes. To discuss this matter further, I talked with Ford, who conducts SAT-prep classes. He believes that these changes could eliminate the industry, which has provided a noticeable advantage to students from affluent families who can afford such preparation. The new changes were made in part so that it would much harder to study for the test. In addition, the College Board plans to work with the Khan Academy to put free SAT test preparation programs and materials online.

SAT prep-books currently provide many hints about questions that can be tricky, or how to write the essay. In addition to the market for prep-books, there is a thriving market for SAT tutors. Tutors usually help you understand the material that you are studying. However, SAT tutors help game the system by showing students how to take the test, in addition to reviewing material first learned in a student’s freshman year.

Clearly, the current iteration of the SAT has many problems. The SAT does not come anywhere close to accurately predicting a student’s performance in college. As Ford said: “The only thing the SAT tests is how well you do on the SAT.” Will this still be true in the spring of 2016? We’ll just have to wait and see.

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