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The Ins and Outs of the New SAT

Mar 11th, 2014 | announcements, College Preparation, Newsletter, SAT, Testing

Last Wednesday, March 5th, the College Board announced a number of fundamental changes to the SAT which are slated to go into effect in 2016. Students who are currently freshmen in high school will be the first to have the opportunity to take the new SAT. Included among the changes are the replacement of some of the more esoteric vocabulary words with ones common in college courses, the elimination of the guessing penalty for wrong answers, the combination of reading and writing questions into a single Verbal section, the transition to an optional essay, and the restructuring of the Math section to concentrate on more “real world” problem-solving tasks.

According to a New York Times article about the changes to the exam, College Board President David Coleman said the SAT needed to become more aligned with the work students actually do in high school, citing survey results that indicate “only 20 percent [of high school teachers] see the college-admission tests as a fair measure of the work their students have done.”

A Seattle Times columnist wrote in an op-ed published over the weekend that, “These tweaks are a shame inasmuch as educators lose measures that provided critical information. The essay, for instance, wasn’t a call to Emersonian excellence but was a way of determining whether a student can compose a coherent sentence.” Other commenters also lamented the test changes as a decision to “dumb-down” the SAT.

We here at the Sandweiss Test Prep team would disagree with this interpretation. First of all, it makes sense to view the changes to the SAT as a business move. In 2012, the number of ACT test-takers surpassed the number of students who took the SAT for the first time, and the College Board was concerned that the SAT would continue to decline in popularity relative to the ACT unless significant changes were made. Secondly, in our view, the proposed changes to the SAT should actually improve the test and not ‘dumb it down’:

1)    Unlike those found on the ACT, the essay prompts on the SAT are mostly irrelevant to the daily lives of high school students. Moreover, the students do not have to provide factually accurate examples to support their arguments, and studies have shown that longer essays receive better scores, regardless of the quality of the reasoning. The new prompts will be more like those found on the GRE and GMAT, and will require students to identify an argument’s assumptions and evaluate the strength of the logic, skills that are certainly necessary to navigate the onslaught of information in our media-saturated age. The fact that the College Board is making the essay “optional” is simply to make it more like the essay component of the ACT. Despite the optional status of the ACT essay, nearly all “competitive” colleges require students to complete the essay portion of the exam.

2) The decision to change the vocabulary portion of the SAT is, in our opinion, long overdue. The words tested on the current version of the exam bear little relevance to the vocabulary encountered and employed not only in our daily lives, but also in most academic writing intended for an audience of more than 30 fellow scholars. How many of you have used “treacly” or “abstruse” lately?

3) Taking away the calculator for one of the two math sections means that students will actually have to learn how to perform basic computation either in their heads or by using a pencil. We have worked with a number of students who, in response to a question like “how much is 47 + 38?”, have had to unzip their backpacks and remove their calculators before being able to provide an answer.

At Sandweiss Test Prep, we’ve been preparing students for the SAT and ACT since 1998. Although we would never claim that these exams are highly predictive of intelligence or academic performance, they do measure some skills that are relevant to higher education and, equally important, to life after college. In our view, any serious effort to improve the quality of the SAT should be welcomed, while all prospective college applicants (and their parents) should remember that grades matter a lot more to college admissions officers than do test scores. Accordingly, the primary focus of those concerned with college readiness should be on “smartening-up” the average high school curriculum.

Next month, the College Board will be releasing some sample questions for the new SAT, and we’ll be posting our analysis of these questions once we’ve had a chance to look them over. In the meantime, click here to view a summary of the key changes the College Board will be making to the SAT.