New SAT seeks to level playing field

In a move that will shake up the landscape of American college admissions, College Board President David Coleman ’91 announced Wednesday that his organization will fundamentally revamp the format of the SAT, the standardized college entrance test 1.6 million high school students took last year.

Starting in the spring of 2016, the new SAT test will return to the 1600-point scale used before College Board adopted a 2400-point scale in 2006, Coleman said at an announcement event in Austin, Texas on Wednesday. Among other changes, the vocabulary section will employ more commonly used words, the essay section of the exam will become optional and College Board will offer low-income students four fee-waivers for SAT tests instead of two. Coleman said these reforms aim to level the playing field for students from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

“The real news today is not just the redesigned SAT, but the College Board’s renewed commitment to delivering opportunity,” Coleman said at the announcement.

Coleman said the new SAT will align more closely with what is currently taught in high school curriculums. The reforms to the test will reduce the advantage that affluent students receive through intense coaching and private tutoring for the exam, he said.

The current test is notorious for employing “SAT words [that] students may not have heard before and are likely not to hear again,” according to a statement about the changes on the College Board website. Coleman said the new exam will focus on words consistently used in college vocabulary and textbooks.

Additionally, the current Critical Reading and Writing sections will be combined into one Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section, which will require students to support their answers with evidence from provided passages. The math section will test fewer subjects but in more depth, and calculators will only be permitted on certain parts of the section. Both sections will be scored equally at 800 points each. The essay will become optional and will ask students to analyze a source document and examine its use of evidence, reasoning and stylistic technique.

The College Board will also partner with Khan Academy, a nonprofit educational website, to upload a number of free tutorials and practice problems from old tests online, Coleman said.

Sal Khan, founder and executive director of Khan Academy, said in a statement that his organization is thrilled to ally with College Board in helping level the playing field for test-takers across the socioeconomic spectrum.

Undergraduate Dean of Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan said he has been advising College Board on these reforms for several months as a member of the organization’s Higher Education Advisory Group.

“I’m very excited by the philosophical and pedagogical direction that [the College Board] is going in with these reforms,” Quinlan said.

All eight students interviewed, including both Yale and high school students, were generally supportive of the changes to the SAT, and the introduction of additional test waivers for low-income students in particular.

Kerry Burke-McCloud ’16 said the former standard of two fee-waivers per student affected his test-taking strategy. He said the new waiver policy will be effective in giving lower income students an opportunity to take the test multiple times instead of having to switch over to the ACT to get more funding. Ira Slomski Pritz ’14 also said the additional waivers were an “unquestionably good thing.”

According to Romy Vassilev, a high school junior at New York City’s Trinity School, the test’s new format will make high school juniors’ workload more manageable.

“Everyone complains about the junior workload [and] having to study for the SAT or ACT makes it 10 times worse, so having the material of your high school classes coincide with the material on the test would alleviate stress,” Vassilev said.

Gabriella Borter, a high school senior at the Trinity School, said she thinks some of the changes will be for the better, such as the elimination of arcane vocabulary from the Critical Reading section. However, she said making the essay optional will eliminate the closest evaluation of a student’s writing skills. Standardized test essays are the only part of the test where students cannot get help from mentors and advisors, she said.

“I thought the essay was the best way to get a peek behind the polished essay college admissions see,” Borter said.

The elimination of a distinct writing section could also hurt students who are more inclined towards the humanities, Eve Houghton ’17 said. She added that, as a student who struggled with math but excelled in reading and writing, she could compensate her shortcomings on the math section with a strong essay and the kinds of vocabulary questions the exam is phasing out.

In recent years, the SAT has come under attack for allegedly perpetuating inequality and for not serving as an accurate barometer of a student’s performance in college.

In 2008, the National Association of College Counseling published a report calling for more selective universities and colleges to consider adopting a policy that would make standardized tests optional for applicants. The NACAC report added that the burgeoning test-prep industry benefits the affluent, and that high school grades are a better tool than test scores when it comes to predicting an applicant’s success in college.

The test’s popularity has also waned in recent years. Although the SAT traditionally held a monopoly in the college entrance test industry, in recent years the ACT has eclipsed the SAT in popularity. According to Fair Test, a testing-watchdog organization, 200,000 more high school students took the ACT than the SAT in 2013.

Two college counselors said the reforms to the test were likely triggered by the ACT’s recent surge in popularity.

“I think for many years, College Board didn’t take the ACT as seriously as they should have, and they’ve caught themselves surprised,” said David Petersam, president of Virginia-based higher education consulting group AdmissionsConsultants, adding that the Critical Reading section of the current SAT test is not popular with test-takers.

Chuck Hughes, a former admissions officer at Harvard, said the new reforms will make the SATs more similar to the ACT exam, which has an optional essay and sections for English, mathematics, reading and science reasoning. He added that the changes to the type of vocabulary being tested by the exam will make the curve even tougher for students. If the vocabulary is more familiar to a larger number of students, even getting a handful of questions wrong could translate to a big score difference, he said.

The College Board was founded in 1900 and the first tests were administered in 1901.

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