Monday, March 10, 2014

Thoughts on the “new” SAT 2016

The New York Times has featured several articles recently about the College Board’s decision to change the format and contents of the SAT in response to relentless criticism from students, educators, and college admissions staff among others.  In my view, the changes, mostly to the reading and writing sections of the exam, are for the better, but the reasons for the reform and the results of them might be somewhat different from what is discussed.

First, a summary of the changes:
--The essay section will become optional and will be an analysis of a passage rather than an amorphous reflection on the relevance of a quotation.
--No more abstruse vocabulary sections—instead the exam will ask students to define words used in daily and school.
--Reading passages will include texts from “founding” historical documents such as the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Gettysburg Address. Students will select answers based on evidence from the passages themselves.
--Calculators will be permitted only on part of the math sections. 
--Math sections will focus on problem solving, data analysis, algebra and complex equations.
--Tests will be structured more like “achievement” or AP tests.
--No more deductions for incorrect scores.

These are significant but not radical changes.  They will shape the test to be more like the SAT’s competitor the ACT, which has content drawn more from actual high school coursework.   In the past few years the number of students taking the ACT vs. the SAT has risen considerably, so one might argue that the College Board, the non-profit organization that administers the SAT, is responding to its competition.

Whatever its reasons for reform, the new College Board president, David Coleman, appears to be genuinely concerned with reaching more high achieving low income students, who have not had the advantage of taking prep courses for exams.  He is working with Khan Academy to develop online tailored tutorials for any student who wants to take the test, hopefully leveling the playing field at least to some degree.

A few cents of advice gleaned from reading and experience:

--Be wary of test preparation courses.  They may be helpful in instilling discipline for studying, but they cannot guarantee score enhancement.

--Consider opportunity cost.  After our daughter Lily performed much better on the ACT than the SAT, despite taking a Revolution Prep course for the SAT, she decided not to re-take the SAT, but to submit her ACT scores instead.  If your high school junior or even sophomore is currently considering either taking a prep course or re-taking the exam several times, it’s worth evaluating what is often called the “opportunity cost.”  What else might your son or daughter be doing to prepare for college instead of studying for or taking standardized tests?  Seeking new experiences whether academic or extra-curricular might be a better option. 

--Take or re-take either the SAT or ACT, not both. Lily’s high school college counselor also advises students to take the SAT and ACT each once—I think a practice test in each would suffice—and see which format works better.  Some students perform significantly better in one format vs. the other.  Re-take the test in which you performed best. 

--Consider applying to test optional schools.  Last month a new report was issued supporting the view of several test optional colleges that standardized tests like the SAT and ACT are not an accurate predictor of student performance at all.  A student’s GPA is much better.  In 2008, a number of colleges and universities began eliminating the SAT and ACT from admissions requirements.  Schools like Wake-Forest have admitted much stronger students academically since that time.  It’s worth considering applying to at least some of these schools.  

I doubt standardized college admissions testing will ever be eliminated from college admissions. But we can at least begin to diminish their outsized influence on the whole evaluation process.

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