When Adam saw the cover story of the New York Times Sunday Magazine a couple of weeks ago, he groaned, “Too late for me.” The headline that upset him, “The Story of the SAT Overhaul,” announced that a new version of the SAT was coming out in the spring of 2016.
Adam had just come off of taking the nearly four-hour exam the day before and he was not a happy camper. Ask Adam what he thinks of the SAT and he’ll happily give you an earful on the subject. “The SAT is quite possibly the worst way to gauge a student’s ability to perform at a college level,” he says. “The vocabulary is unnecessarily obscure, the reading analysis asks the most random questions, the writing section indoctrinates students to lose all sense of creativity and style and the essay is judging a student’s ability to write in a time limit not suitable for a well constructed paragraph.”
Of course, that’s one kid’s opinion, but I suspect many of his peers share it as well. It appears that the College Board has been listening too. For the second time in ten years the Board is thoroughly revising the way it tests college applicants. According to David Coleman, who took over as head of the College Board in 2012, the changes will go far in democratizing the test for all students.
In effect, Coleman is acknowledging the SAT’s dirty, open secret – families with access to wealth, education, a good school or all three have an unfair advantage when preparing for the test. The new SAT will be more aligned with what a college-bound senior should have learned in a common core curriculum. Before coming to the College Board, Coleman was a key figure in the development of the Common Core Standards. Those standards, with their emphasis on analytical thinking as well as key math and writing concepts, will be reflected in the new SAT. As it stands now, Coleman acknowledges the test is “disconnected” from the high school curriculum.
Some of Adam’s criticisms have been dealt with in the test that will be administered in 2016. The section that is currently labeled critical reading will merge with multiple choice writing questions from to form a new section called “evidence-based reading and writing.” Thankfully, current questions known as “sentence completion” will be jettisoned, addressing Adam’s complaint about defining “unnecessarily obscure” vocabulary.
The College Board will include more science, history and social studies questions for further analysis on the exam. New among those passages will be source documents from American luminaries like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.
The math section will focus more on data analysis, problem solving, algebra and topics touching on more advanced mathematics. As it stands now, calculators are allowed throughout the math sections, but they will be barred from certain portions in the future to determine math fluency.
The mandatory essay, an innovation of the 2005 SAT, will be optional in the future. Students will now have 50 minutes to analyze evidence as well as an author’s argument. Currently, test-takers have only 25 minutes to answer a prompt that doesn’t require them to verify facts or worry about accuracy.
The change that I am most excited about in this whole SAT business is that it has the potential to level the playing field when it comes to test preparation. Gaming the SAT is a $4.5 billion-a-year industry that preys on parents and kids alike. To end this madness (and yes, my kids took prep courses, so I got caught up in the frenzy too), Coleman has partnered with Khan Academy, which offers free online tutorials on myriad subjects ranging from literature to calculus.The academy was founded in 2006 by Sal Khan, 36, who left his job as a successful hedge-fund manager with the goal of bringing a world-class education to anyone with an internet connection. With that same can-do, egalitarian spirit, Khan Academy will offer its trademark free videos on preparing for the new SAT.
The new SAT will also hopefully make books like the newly published, The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT by Debbie Stier feel anachronistic. Stier is a suburban New York mom who decided that the only way to gain admission and win a scholarship to college for her B average son was to help him achieve a perfect 2400 on the current SAT. Thirty years earlier, Stier had done poorly on her own SAT exam, so in her quest to beef up her son’s academic profile she took the SAT as an adult – seven times in seven different test centers. She went to tutoring companies, engaged pricey private teachers and generally drove herself nuts. She didn’t achieve a perfect score – her verbal scores steadily improved but she never scored more than the mid-500s in math – but she learned a thing or two about the unfairness of the system along the way.
As for Adam, he says that SAT has too much power in teenagers’ lives. He’s doubtful whether a new version can come close to reigning in that power. He may be right. Yet after all is said and done, most college admissions officers note that grades, not SAT scores, are the best predictors of success in college.