College Board restructures SAT to renew confidence in exam

Last Wednesday, the College Board announced that it will modify the SAT, with changes taking effect in spring 2016. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the new SAT “will have three sections: ‘evidence-based’ reading and writing, mathematics and an essay.”

The College Board’s adaptations come in the wake of the ACT taking an increasing market share of high school test takers. “There are a lot of people that are saying this is just the College Board reacting to the ACT and the competition it has created,” Dick Nesbitt ’74, director of admissions, said. “And they’re losing some market share of test takers. You could look at it the other way and say the competition is good if it creates a better outcome. So it may be a good thing in the long run, but we’ll have to wait and see.”

The essay section will be optional and, rather than the current 25-minute allocation for the essay, test takers will have 50 minutes to complete their work. Additionally, the essay portion will be similar to document-based style questions from Advanced Placement exams and will require students to analyze and synthesize different source materials. The math section will be refined to cover less material but focus more on problem solving and algebra. The reading section will remain multiple choice but the questions will require students to use the reading material to substantiate their choice. Similar to the ACT, the reading samples will come from a broader range of sources, including historical, natural science and social science pieces. The new exam will test vocabulary that remains challenging but is more relevant to college curricula. For example, the College Board cites words like “empirical” and “synthesis” as vocabulary that will be useful for incoming college students.

Scoring will be out of 1600 rather than the current scale of 2400, and the essay section will be scored separately. Additionally, students will not be penalized for incorrect answers.

In general, Nesbitt sees the new SAT as a more curriculum-based test, and while it will be difficult to determine the ramifications of the new SAT, the College Board hopes that the revamped SAT will encourage students to succeed in the classroom to do well on the SAT. “The best way to prep for it is to be a good student,” Nesbitt said. “You want the best preparation for a test like this to be things that all good students would do anyway and that is read a lot, choose challenging courses, work hard in school. And less about gaming the system. That’s ideally what it would do.”

Susan Engel, senior lecturer in psychology, also referenced the motivations behind the changes, specifically speaking in regard to David Coleman, president of the College Board, and his beliefs on education. “I’m not sure it’s going to be as dramatic a change as people are suggesting,” Engel said. “However, David Coleman is a very smart and thoughtful guy, and he’s bold, which is great. We need that in education. I agree with him that a test as ubiquitous and powerful as the SAT should measure and ultimately influence the things we want kids to be learning in high school. But I think his view of what all students should learn is somewhat rigid and narrow. I am glad the new test will put more emphasis on the use of evidence, but I’m not sure it’s going to assess this in a way that is more than skin deep.”

The College Board also announced that it will partner with Khan Academy to help lower-income students prepare for the SAT. The Khan Academy and the College Board are developing free instructional videos and thousands of practice problems for all students, hopefully reducing the advantage of students who can afford private test prep instruction. “It’s a good step to take away some of the mystery of the test,” Nesbitt said. “I still think there will be test prep companies that will gain from this, but if test prep is curriculum-based, that’s probably not a bad thing. It’s preferable to test prep being strategies and gaming of the system.”

Engel is also hopeful that the new SAT will reduce the income advantage of wealthier students but remains uncertain that the test will accomplish this. “If we had a test that could identify the most interesting and thoughtful students (no matter what their background), rather than the most privileged students, or those most able to do all that is asked of them, that would be great,” Engel said. “I’m not sure the new SAT will do either of those. But maybe no paper and pencil test can.”

Students taking the revised SAT will have the opportunity to do so on a computer. The ACT, however, will also be offered on a computer, starting in 2015. The SAT will not be available on a computer until 2016.

At the College, admissions decisions are based holistically, with each component of a student’s application combining to give the admissions office a portfolio that will hopefully predict academic success. Therefore, while the SAT changes will affect admissions, its ramifications will be more subdued. “We use a series of factors to try to predict academic success because there’s no one good predictor,” Nesbitt said. “We know that. We know that the SAT isn’t a great predictor of success by itself. But unfortunately, grades aren’t a good predictor of academic success by themselves either.”

Williams also requires SAT Subject Tests from applicants, and Nesbitt does not foresee the new, curriculum-based SAT changing that. “I’m sort of worried that the SAT might all of the sudden say now that we have a curriculum-based exam, we don’t need the subject tests,” Nesbitt said. “They haven’t even approached that topic; they’ve been focused entirely on the SAT1.  I just think it would be too bad if they eliminated the subject tests … To me, any bit of extra information is helpful [in making an admissions decision].”