Changes to standardized tests are nothing new. As universities shift focus in what academic traits their admission officials believe represent excellence, the organizations that administer entrance exams adjust their content and format to keep up.
So the announcement of changes to the SAT offers some immediate excitement and promise. Soon, it will be important to understand the SAT changes fully and understand what they mean for students. For those of you who will take the new SAT (any of you graduating in 2017 or after), you will be part of the ultimate decision process regarding the change and how well it’s working.
Tom Rose, Testive’s CEO, breaks down what the changes are and what they mean for students.
What details are known right now?
There are few concrete details known to the public right now about how the SAT will be changing. The College Board has made some announcements, but the details of what changes will actually occur are murky, and so much of what will happen is still subject to wide speculation. Things that are very likely to occur include a computer-based format, an optional essay component, a Khan Academy prep resource, and a reduction of calculator use. It appears that there may be some changes to how vocabulary is used.
Who does this affect?
The proposed changes to the SAT that College Board announced on March 5, 2014 are forecasted to come out in 2016. That means that they will not affect students graduating in 2014, 2015, or 2016. The first group of students that needs to be on the lookout for the new SAT is the class of 2017.
Is this good for students or bad for students?
So far, all the concrete changes that have been proposed to the SAT move in the direction of increased fairness and better access. However, in terms of scoring, remember that at the end of the day, the SAT is a competition. Some students will be better off with the new test (in that they will score higher), an exactly equal number of students will be worse off (in that they will score lower.) When a sample test is released, we’ll be better able to comment on who will be better off and who will be worse off. In terms of stress, the removal of the essay requirement is likely to make everyone better off in the sense that the test will be less stressful since skipping that section will likely cut down on total test time. To the extent that the test eliminates things that don’t matter, such as archaic vocabulary, everyone will be better off since students can focus on learning things that are more useful later in life. The release of Khan Academy prep resources is very promising and can only be good for students.
What does the online format mean for students?
One of the major changes to the SAT is how it will be administered. It will now likely be available in an online format. This means students will no longer have to worry about messy handwriting and can write in the non-linear fashion now common with computer-based writing. For the students who grew up in a digital era, this method of taking a test will probably feel more familiar to them and make it easier to handle. I expect high demand for the online version of the test.
Is the new test impossible to prep for?
Since 1926, when the SAT was first released, it was designed to be impossible for students to prepare for. The part of the equation that always gets left out for some reason is that education IS preparation. As long as learning makes you better at a test, it will always be worthwhile for students to apply themselves, achieve personal growth, and better themselves in the process. The recent changes to the SAT will not be an exception.
What are the new question types?
In terms of content, the SAT will also feature new kinds of questions. On the new version of the test, students will be provided with specific resources that they can cite and use to support their answers. In the past, these documents encompassed a range of topics, but now there will be a greater emphasis on passages from a variety of academic disciplines, including history, science and social studies. This aligns more closely with what students are likely to see in class. Little else is currently known about how question types and formats will change.
How will vocabulary change?
The vocabulary change was one of the most lackluster portions of the new SAT proposal. The best change would be to eliminate definition-based vocabulary altogether in favor of context-based vocabulary (like that used in the ACT). It was suggested that the choice of vocab words tested would shift to a better selection, but I’m not holding my breath. College Board has been making weak vocab choices for decades now. Anything short of total elimination of the question type is likely to have little impact on test quality.
The essay component will be optional?
Since the essay is no longer required, many students will choose not to include it when they take the test. Also, since the essay score will no longer be counted toward the score out of 1600, its importance to admissions officers will be drastically reduced. The value of the essay will move to one of almost no importance for students. The jury is out on whether schools will require a writing score. If schools do require a writing score, I’m hopeful that students will be able to take the writing section once, then omit it on future tests, thus lowering the emotional burden of taking the test multiple times if students want to take another run at things.
How will the essay prompt change?
The College Board has said that in the new essay “students will read a passage and explain how the author builds an argument.” This sounds exactly like the current essay section of the GMAT. Having students respond to a standardized question is a better assessment of student writing ability. Combining a standardized prompt with computer entered essays also allows for machine grading, which cuts down on costs for the College Board.
Can we use calculators on the new test?
While the writing portion of the test is gaining an upper hand from the use of a computer, the math section that once relied on the calculator will no longer require it. It will now only be used for some of the math sections. The SAT already hardly requires calculator use at all, so this is likely just a change to the rules, not the content of the test.
Isn’t the ACT doing all this stuff already?
Many of the changes proposed by College Board are already included in what the ACT does already: optional essay, a science component, limited vocabulary testing, no penalty for wrong answers. This is a step in the right direction for College Board. Time will tell whether they can fully close the gap with the ACT.
What are the changes to the reading passages?
In terms of the passages that students are reading, they will all have historical significance. Each passage will come from the Founding Documents or the Great Global Conversation. Knowledge of these documents will likely already be coming from the classroom and if not, these documents are an important part of history that students should have a working knowledge of regardless of whether or not they take the SAT.
What about the penalty for guessing incorrectly?
In addition to these fundamental changes, students will no longer be punished for guessing on the SAT, which is something the ACT has been doing already. This gives students the confidence to put down answers they are unsure about, increasing their chances of getting those questions correct. This has almost no pedagogical impact, but is part of the College Boards quest to seem less evil.
How will the score change?
The score scale will no longer be out of 2400 and will return to a 1600, with the essay scored separately. The math section will be scored out of an 800 and the newly titled “evidence-based reading and writing” will also be scored out of an 800. This does not have a huge impact on the student’s learning, but may make it easier for parents to understand scores since they were scored under the same overall score scale when they took the test.
What does this mean for SAT prep?
Students taking this new exam are not the only ones who will be affected. The SAT prep industry will also feel some growing pains as the new SAT comes into effect. The College Board is partnering with Khan Academy to release some free resources for students, which is good. While Khan Academy will provide some support in the prep area, we expect that they will function as a tool that will be part of a larger solution. The move to a digital form of the test will also encourage more prep companies to move their businesses to online.
Mr. Coleman’s aspiration seems to be to align the SAT with what students are learning in school. It will take a lot to pull that off. How can one differentiate between vocab that students need to know and vocab they will never see again? It will always be a sore spot for test takers and test makers. The idea is great, but may be difficult to put into practice. Schools, however, will begin to play a larger role in the test prep industry and will provide a gateway to students who are looking for more prep options.
This new change in SAT prep is one that we believe is a step in the right direction. We believe it will require changes in the prep industry, but not major ones. There have been so many changes in the SAT format in the past and those of us that have lived through them will believe the revolutionary rhetoric only after it has come to pass. In the mean time, we celebrate the College Board’s love of the student and hope they make things a little better for students everywhere. As long as standardized tests are around, there will be opportunities for students to learn, and we’ll be around to help them.