The College Board has announced that it will be introducing major changes to the SAT, the standardized test used by many undergraduate admissions offices across the United States. The new test will be implemented in 2016; changes include reducing the 2400 point system back to 1600, not deducting marks for incorrect answers, disallowing calculators on the math portion, narrowing vocabulary words to those most likely used in the college level, and making the essay portion optional. Currently the test is composed of three sections, each totalling 800 points: Math, Reading (comprehension), and Writing (grammar and essay).
These changes have been expected for a while as the SAT has been criticized for test questions that felt disjointed from a typical high school education. The popularity of the SAT exam has also been decreasing relative to another standardized test accepted for admissions—the ACT. Finally, there has been a question of whether or not the College Board’s standardized testing is truly equitable for students from all backgrounds.
The changes to the SAT are a welcome step in the right direction, but it’s tough to say if they will make a significant difference in the long run.
Several of the changes, in my opinion, have been a long time coming. The SAT is notorious for its vocabulary testing, pressuring some students to study for months to memorize endless lists of difficult words. Students rarely come across the majority of the vocabulary, and they are unlikely to use any of it after taking the test.
Although the exam will become easier than it is today, students will still be tested just as much on their problem solving skills. Disallowing calculators will test the true arithmetic capabilities of each student. And if students get an incorrect answer by working through the problem manually, it seems reasonable not to deduct points for wrong answers in the new format.
The essay section has always been a headache for many students. With so many essays to mark, test graders are looking for very specific elements in an essay. Essays will score higher if they are longer, use higher level vocabulary, make certain connections, and if they make use of quotations from prominent figures in history, according to Les Perelman, SAT tutor and director of writing at MIT. Nail these elements, and you will do well, but writing creatively and not following conventions will result in a low score. It’s also tough to write an essay in 25 minutes—the change will lengthen the essay time to 50 minutes. Making the essay optional provides students more control over their score, not having the essay drag them down if they are uncomfortable writing it.
The most difficult issue to address is that of levelling the playing field for students who don’t have the resources or finances to take the SAT. The College Board will be waiving fees for financially burdened students and is partnering with Khan Academy to provide free resources online, but students who pay for individual SAT prep courses may still have an advantage taking the test. These courses may cost hundreds of dollars, creating an industry grown around standardized test prep. Students from low-income families also have less time to study if they are forced to hold up a job, or take on extra responsibilities at home. I truly hope these changes will allow the opportunity for more students to take the test.
Only time will tell if these changes make an impact. While we wait, I’m going back to studying those vocabulary lists.