The New SAT Is Coming — But It’s Mostly Same Old, Same Old


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SAT changes

There are so many decisions – and changes to the SAT don’t make things any easier. Copyright image by Decoded Science, all rights reserved.

As a tutor (and parent), I know that no single issue that’s not dating-related causes such consternation for teenagers and parents as much as the SAT test. It is considered the make-or-break event that decides the fate and future of every child.

And now College Board is changing the test. Students and parents are struggling to cope with the changes.

What Is The SAT?

The SAT is a mostly multiple-choice exam for high school juniors and seniors that colleges use as guidance for admission. There was a time when SAT was the only such exam, but now ACT has nudged ahead of SAT as the leader in the field.

SAT was born of good intentions, as an aptitude test that would give disadvantaged children an opportunity to show innate intelligence that colleges could use as a college-readiness predictor, rather than  relying on grades.

But now standardized testing has grown into a big and stultified business, notwithstanding the fact that many of the testing services are non-profits. The original intent of SAT has been turned on its head, and those who can afford expensive tutors are now at an even greater advantage.

Why Are They Changing?

The change in format is an attempt by SAT to regain its former top spot. In many ways the new test more closely resembles the now-more-widely-used ACT. But neither test does what it purports to do — provide a basis upon which to evaluate a student’s likelihood of success in college. Studies show that students who are admitted to colleges based on test scores do no better than those who attend colleges (and there is a growing number of these) that don’t base admissions on test scores.

What Is IMPROVED On The New SAT?

  • The new test has fewer sections — five — as opposed to the previous unwieldy ten. With clearly different times for each section, the fiasco of the recent (June 6) test, on which a misprint in the test booklet regarding the time allotted for a certain section caused two sections of the test to be invalidated, will not be repeated.
  • The new essay is also an improvement over the old one in one sense: The time allowed is doubled from 25 to 50 minutes, so there is time to actually think about and write a real essay. Unfortunately, the essay is no longer part of the writing score, and in fact, as with the ACT essay, it is optional.
  • The math test now includes some advanced topics such as trigonometry and higher order equations. If you’re going to test math, why not test all of the math to which the students have been exposed?
  • There is a slightly higher percentage of what The College Board calls ‘student-response’ math questions (I call them ‘grid-ins’). These are non-multiple-choice questions. The whole multiple-choice issue is discussed below

What’s STILL WRONG With The New SAT?

  • The matter of multiple-choice has not been addressed; in fact, as you will see, they’ve made things worse. We do not live in a multiple-choice world. The economics of grading the tests apparently trump the need to accurately assess the students. I won’t go into the myriad ways that multiple-choice questions are so different from real life; suffice it to say they (multiple-choice questions) simply live in an intellectual universe of their own. Many strategies center around gaming the multiple-choice format.
  • The math questions are still ordered from easiest to hardest. This gives additional clues to the student as to how to solve them. What could possibly be the reason for doing this?
  • This is still a timed test. It penalizes students who get test anxiety or who are meticulous but slow, and it rewards students whose minds work at a pace that is consistent with the timing. Again, the relation to the real world, or to likely success in college, is hard to discern.

What Is WORSE About The New SAT?

Though the SAT has been hyped with such rhetoric as “SAT scores provide deep insight into student readiness for college and career,” there is no evidence that this was true of the old test, nor is there anything in the new test to indicate things will change in this regard. The test is clearly worse in several ways.

  • SAT is eliminating the penalty for entering a wrong answer. This matches the ACT algorithm and is definitely a step in the wrong direction. It introduces a level of gamesmanship that has no business in a test that claims to measure college readiness.

We don’t know exactly how the new SAT will be structured but the reading section appears almost identical to ACT. Here is an example of gaming the ACT reading section: Many students have trouble finishing this section with even a modest degree of understanding of the material. But if they slow down, they get a fairly high percentage of questions right. So we try to determine in which of the four subject areas they do most poorly, then finish three sections with a decent number of correct answers, and accept the extra points that are the largesse of the multiple-choice format by guessing on the fourth section. Does this sound like a way to test college readiness?

  • The new SAT reduces the number of answer choices in reading and writing from five to four (matching the ACT). Coupled with the no-penalty-for-a-wrong-answer rule, this inflates the scores of lucky guessers.
  • About a third of the new SAT math will be no-calculator. What are they thinking? When in real life does a student not have access to a calculator? When in a college class will the student not have access to a calculator? I understand that they want to find out if the student can think, rather than just calculate, but this is such an unrealistic way to do it as to be purposeless.
  • The SAT essay is now optional and not part of any of the scores. This is a subject complicated by the fact that most colleges require an essay with application, and prefer to judge writing ability on the basis of their own essay. Since the essay was formerly part of the SAT writing score, many colleges did not give full or any credit for that part of the test.

The Twenty-First Century Testing Conundrum

Just as people in the real world have access to calculators, they also have access to the Internet. The SAT and ACT do not allow this access, and will confiscate smartphones. The standardized tests have clearly diverged from the real world of powerful calculators and virtually unlimited access to information.

Instead of making cosmetic changes, The College Board should think long and hard about how they can make their test actually do what they claim — predict a student’s chance of success in college in the third millennium.

Why Do Colleges Use The SAT?

The judging of one human being by another is precarious business. Admissions officers are under great pressure to bring in students who will make the school a ‘success,’ a word which has slippery and changing definitions. Standardized tests are one way to judge a student, a way hyped by testing companies as conclusive, but increasingly questioned by colleges. In fact, there are now about 800 colleges in the United States that don’t use SAT/ACT for their admissions. The list includes some top-ranked schools such as Brandeis and Arizona State.

SAT Versus ACT, And Other Confusing Things

SAT and ACT are acronyms that have outlived their parents, Scholastic Aptitude Test and American College Testing respectively. SAT is administered by College Board, and ACT is administered by ACT, Inc.

ACT creates its own tests, while SAT tests are created by Educational Testing Service (ETS), yet another non-profit entity.

Judging from the scoring and naming of parts of the test, you would think College Board and ACT, Inc. have conspired to confuse.

  • Each current SAT section (reading, math, writing) is scored on a scale of 200 to 800. The composite score is the SUM of the individual scores, so the maximum SAT score is currently 2400. The new SAT will combine the reading and writing scores into a single score, so the maximum possible score will be 1600.
  • Each ACT section (reading, math, English, science) is scored on a scale of zero to 36; the composite is the AVERAGE of the four scores.
  • The SAT writing, which currently includes an essay, is more-or-less comparable to the ACT English. To make things as confusing as possible, ACT calls its essay ‘writing.’ SAT more sensibly calls its essay ‘essay.’

Is The SAT Really THAT Important?

The short answer is NO; The long answer is NO.

I have had many students tell me they just HAVE TO go to school X. I do my best to get them to the standard of admission for school X, but I always caution them that they might not be accepted — that there is no telling how the admissions process really works. I also tell them that they can get a good undergraduate education at any college. I have had a number of students tell me how lucky they were that they didn’t get accepted to school X because they are so happy at their second choice, school Y.

So my advice is always to give it your best, concentrate on every question, but don’t obsess.

Now can we talk about that curfew for Saturday night?

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