The SAT Redesigned for 2016

The SAT is dead, long live the SAT. Ten years after announcing the introduction of the new SAT, The College Board this week unveiled the new new SAT. Most of the press coverage favored a fairly predictable storyline: the SAT, under a heated challenge from the ACT, and losing marketshare, went for reinvention to stabilize its struggling brand. There’s some truth in this, but there’s more to it. Notably, the newest version of the SAT reflects the will of the College Board’s current president, David Coleman, who in his two years with the company has taken on the role of critic-in-chief of the test. His team’s efforts reflect an attempt to take on the many challenges the test has faced: it’s biased; it’s irrelevant to what happens on high school and college campuses; it’s excessively punishing to students. One of things he noted in unveiling the new test is that these criticisms aren’t too far off for the ACT, either. So, the real story is that this SAT is less about competing with the ACT and more about a rearguard action against forces that would obliterate this whole style of standardized testing.

In recent years, a number of colleges and universities have started eschewing both tests entirely. Even more have decided to make the tests optional. Instead, they’ve substituted a greater emphasis on student grades, recommendations, personal statements, and portfolios of graded work. They do this because for the most part, to be quite frank, the SATs and ACTs suck.

The current SAT, redesigned in 2005, has failed miserably. At 3 hours 45 minutes, plus logistical times, it’s long and onerous. The math is often gimmicky. The famous SAT words are often needlessly obscure, emphasizing memorization over command. The critical reading is often mystifying in its interpretations of texts and the texts themselves are of dubious usefulness or quality. The essay is abysmal. It asks students, in 25 minutes, to reflect on some random question that doesn’t reflect the sort of writing they do in school or will do in college. It emphasizes “organization” (meaning a dash of transitions and blunt paragraphing) and length over clarity, coherence, argumentation, or even accuracy. Notoriously, the only reliable way to score high is to write long and throw in a couple of quotes (real or not, applicable or not). In all, the test is totally gameable. It is fodder for testing coaches, not for teachers. Everyone hates it (except test prep specialists. . . . and even some of them).

To some degree, the 2016 SAT tries to address the whole raft of problems. Some highlights:

  • It replaces the generations-old “SAT words” with “relevant words in context.” The test will no longer pose questions about the meanings of random, obscure words. Instead, it will draw on words in the context of reading passages that have relevance to the ordinary work of students in high school, college, and their daily lives.

  • The reading and grammar component will become the “Evidence-Based Reading and Writing.” section. It will ask students to answer critical questions about a text and, significantly, will require selecting relevant passages from that text to justify the answer. Other questions will ask students to integrate the information given in graphics and written passages. Writing components will require that students analyze passages for grammar and substance. Others will require students to edit passages in the light of evidence provided in informational graphics.

  • The essay will become optional and be redesigned wholesale. The new essay will ask students, in 50 minutes, to analyze a passage and build an argument about the author’s rhetoric and style. The prompt will always be the same, only the passage up for analysis will change.

  • The math will consolidate. Instead of the wide-ranging topics covered on the old test, the new SAT will emphasize three “Key Areas”: “Problem Solving and Data Analysis” (ratios, proportional reasoning), “The Heart of Algebra” (or linear equations and systems), and “Passport to Advanced Math” (complex equations and manipulations). The idea is to highlight areas that will be of genuine relevance to college-level work in things like the physical and social sciences.

  • There is an overall emphasis on real-world relevance. This means reading texts from a wider variety of disciplines, responding to data represented in multiple formats, and addressing math problems that reflect the ways we need to calculate in daily life.

  • Related to this last one, the sources for reading passages will expand. Students will have to respond, on their own terms, to passages from the sciences, history, and social sciences. The hope is that this will bring more of students’ classroom experience into the test.

  • The Evidence-Based Reading section will also now always include one document drawn either from the nation’s founding documents or from the “Great Global Conversation” those documents initiated: Martin Luther King., Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” for instance.

  • Finally, the new SAT does away with the so-called “guessing penalty,” which penalized students for wrong answers. The old penalty encouraged gamesmanship and discouraged risk-taking.

Testing, in general, is the issue of the moment. Every standardized test, from in-school assessments to SATs, is under fire. Learning is nonlinear, accretive, complex, and subtle. The work a student turns in on one day in April or May should not bear undue weight, but it’s over-simplifying and unrealistic to rule out testing entirely. A better SAT is helpful, but it’s not a panacea. Taken together, the changes represent a significant step, but if it’s a big enough step remains to be seen. Certainly, if there is to be such a thing as the SAT, we want it to be well aligned with the requirements of college and the preparation that high schools should reasonably be expected to provide. We want it to minimize the influence of the private coaching industry. And this test does seem to move toward accomplishing those things. But the case for keeping the SAT at all, the special, Saturday, cross-curricular, one-off monster that it is (and the ACT, like it), is still a very hard one to make.

Tags: SAT, ACT, SAT Prep, College Admissions
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The Subtle Stresses of School Admissions

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