The SAT college admission test will no longer require a timed essay, will dwell less on fancy vocabulary and will return to the familiar 1600-point scoring scale in a major overhaul intended to open doors to higher education for students who are now shut out.
The second redesign of the SAT this century, announced Wednesday, will take effect in early 2016, as today’s ninth graders are sitting for their college admission tests.
Skeptics questioned whether a new format will be any more successful than previous efforts to use the standardized test in a campaign for college access, in part because the test’s scores historically have correlated with family income. They also point out that the 88-year-old SAT in recent years has slipped behind the rival ACT — a shorter exam with an optional essay — in total student customers.
Through the revisions, the College Board aims to strip many of the tricks out of a test now taken by more than 1.5 million students in each year’s graduating high school class. The College Board also pledged to offer new test-preparation tutorials for free online, enabling students to bypass pricey SAT-prep classes previously available mostly to affluent families looking to give their children an edge.
Out in the redesign will be “SAT words” that have long prompted anxious students to cram with flashcards, as the test will now focus on vocabulary words that are widely used in college and career. The College Board hasn’t yet cited examples of words deemed too obscure, but “punctilious,” “phlegmatic” and “occlusion” are three tough ones in an official study guide.
Out, too, will be a much-reviled rule that deducts a quarter-point for each wrong answer to multiple-choice questions, deterring random guesses. Also gone: The 2400-point scale begun nine years ago with the debut of the required essay. The essay will become optional.
Back will be one of the iconic numbers of 20th-century America: The perfect SAT score, crystalline without a comma, returns to 1600.
With these and other changes — such as asking students to analyze documents key to the nation’s founding — College Board officials said they want to make the SAT more accessible, straightforward and grounded in what is taught in high school.
“It is time for an admissions assessment that makes it clear that the road to success is not last-minute tricks or cramming, but the learning students do over years,” David Coleman, the College Board’s president, said in a speech Wednesday in Austin. The SAT, he said, “will no longer stand apart from . . . daily studies and learning.”
At the same time, Coleman fired a broadside at a test-prep industry that sells books, flashcards and courses to help students raise their scores in the hopes of gaining an edge in admissions and scholarships.
Coleman said the New York-based organization will team with the nonprofit Khan Academy, which delivers free tutorials in math and other subjects via a popular Web site of the same name, to provide free SAT prep for the world.
“The College Board cannot stand by while some test-prep providers intimidate parents at all levels of income into the belief that the only way they can secure their child’s success is to pay for costly test preparation and coaching,” Coleman said. “If we believe that assessment must be a force for equity and excellence, it’s time to shake things up.”
Coleman also repeated a pledge he made at the White House in January: The College Board will deliver four college application fee waivers to each test-taker meeting income eligibility requirements, allowing them to apply to schools for free.
Coleman, head of the College Board since fall 2012, previously was a key figure in the development of the new Common Core State Standards. Those standards, which set national expectations for what students should learn in math and English from kindergarten through 12th grade, have been fully adopted in 45 states and the District. Coleman’s vision for the SAT, with emphasis on analysis of texts from a range of disciplines as well as key math and language concepts, appears to echo the philosophy underlying the Common Core and could help the test track more closely with what students are learning in the nation’s classrooms.
Whether the College Board can break the link between test scores and economic class is the subject of much debate.
“There’s no reason to think that fiddling with the test is in any way going to increase its fairness,” said Joseph A. Soares, a Wake Forest University sociologist. He said high school grades are a far better measure of college potential. Tests, he argued, needlessly screen out disadvantaged students.
Argelia Rodriguez, president and chief executive of the D.C. College Access Program, which provides college counseling in public high schools, said the College Board was taking a “step in the right direction” by promoting a test that might be less intimidating. But she said financial aid and other issues are far more important to low-income families. “There’s a lot more to access than just test-taking,” she said.
The redesign follows a challenging decade for a standardized test launched in 1926 that has wielded enormous influence in American education from the Great Depression through the era of No Child Left Behind. Advocates say the SAT provides a common yardstick for academic merit; critics call it a tool to protect the interests of the elite.
Originally the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the SAT shed that name years ago along with the devilish antonym and analogy questions that were a staple of what was once called the “verbal” section. It underwent a major change in 2005 that drew mixed reviews.
That year, a writing section, worth up to 800 points, was added with multiple-choice questions and a 25-minute essay. Critics complained that too little time was given for essay revisions and that assignments did not reflect the level of analysis expected in college. Some college admissions officers also were lukewarm.
“As a predictor of student success, a 25-minute essay isn’t going to tell us a great deal,” said Stephen J. Handel, associate vice president of undergraduate admissions for the University of California.
And in recent years, more and more students were gravitating toward the rival ACT exam. The SAT has long been dominant on the West Coast, in the Northeast and in the Washington region. The ACT, launched in 1959 and overseen by an organization based in Iowa, attracts more students in the middle of the country and the South.
The two tests overlap in mission but diverge in style and content, with the ACT traditionally measuring achievement (including a science section) and the SAT measuring thinking skills. But the ACT has made inroads on the SAT’s turf, and many students now take both. In 2012, the ACT surpassed the SAT in the number of reported test-takers.
ACT President Jon L. Erickson said he was “a little underwhelmed” by the College Board’s announcement. “I appreciate and I’m glad they’re fixing their acknowledged flaws in their test,” he said.
Both exams also are facing challenges from the growing test-optional movement. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing lists about 800 colleges and universities that admit a substantial number of undergraduates without requiring them to submit SAT or ACT scores.
Among them is American University, which started the experiment in 2010. Now 18 percent of its applicants do not submit SAT or ACT scores.
“It’s gone up every year,” said Sharon Alston, AU’s vice provost for undergraduate enrollment. She said the university has not detected “any significant difference” in the performance of students who don’t submit test scores compared with those who do.
College Board officials, mindful of these developments, say the redesign has a larger purpose.
“We’re not just chasing market share here, I can assure you that,” said Shirley Ort, a top financial aid official at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, who is vice chair of the College Board’s governing board. “We want the SAT to be more than just an event that takes place in a test center. We think it can serve as a catalyst for student engagement.”
The redesign will beef up the essay, giving students who choose to take it 50 minutes to analyze evidence and explain how an author builds an argument. The rest of the test will be three hours. Currently the SAT takes three hours and 45 minutes.
The math section will tighten its focus on data analysis, problem solving, algebra and topics leading into advanced math. Calculators, now permitted throughout the math section, will be barred in some portions to help gauge math fluency.
The section now called “critical reading” will be merged with multiple-choice writing questions to form a new section called “evidence-based reading and writing.” Questions known as “sentence completion,” which in part assess vocabulary, will be dropped. Analysis of passages in science, history and social studies will be expanded.
And each version of the test will include a passage from documents crucial to the nation’s founding, or core civic texts from sources such as President Abraham Lincoln or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
When the test probes student vocabulary, the College Board said, it will focus on “words that are widely used in college and career.” Coleman cited “synthesis” as an example. “This is not an obscure word, but one students encounter everywhere,” he said.
Choosing such words could prove difficult. Carol Jago, a past president of the National Council of Teachers of English, who serves on a College Board advisory panel, said the test revisions would “reward students who take high school seriously, who are real readers, who write well.” She said she was loath to drop from the exam a word such as “egalitarian,” which appears in one College Board practice test. But she said: “Maybe we can live without ‘phlegmatic.’ ”
A New Adventure
As a teacher and an author of test prep books, I make it my job to see any changes to the test firsthand. That means taking the test myself, whether it was the updated ACT in 2015 or now the New SAT in 2016.
So when April of 2016 rolled around, I signed up for the March SAT exam, the very first one that would be conducted in the new format.
I wanted to get a teacher’s perspective of the test. My three main goals were to
- See what concepts were tested
- See what worked and what didn’t on the essay using my framework
- Test out some section-specific strategies
While a perfect score would be nice to get, it wasn’t a priority given that I’m already a few years out of college.
As someone who is extremely experienced with standardized testing, I knew I didn’t have to do too much prep. But to get the most out of this experience, I did all the practice exams released by The College Board and wrote several essays using a framework I had devised.
A week before the test, I got this lovely email in my inbox:
The College Board had decided to ban all tutors (age 21+) from the first administration. I suspect the reasons went beyond just the security of the test, but anyway, that’s beyond the scope of this post. My encounter with the New SAT would have to wait.
After 2 months of waiting, the May 7th exam finally came around and I was allowed to sit for the exam.
Unfortunately, I was dealing with a severe case of jetlag after returning from a 2-week visit to Vietnam. I battled through it, got up early on Saturday, and took the train to a local school.
Upon arrival, my ID was checked and I was told to look for a yellow ticket with my name on it. These tickets were all laid out on a long table in the cafeteria.
When I found mine, I noticed right away that it had a gold sticker that wasn’t on any of the other tickets. Guess I was being singled out. Interesting…
I was told to wait at a separate table in the cafeteria until all the other students were sent off to their testing rooms. As it turned out, I was to be given my own room with my very own proctor because I was over 21. What luxury! Extra space and guaranteed silence. This security measure worked out in my favor.
Tips and Thoughts on the Exam
- It is so much easier than the old exam. Not only is it more straightforward, the actual questions themselves are less difficult. It’s almost like The College Board took a 12th grade test and made it a 10th grade test.
- Because it’s easier, expect score inflation. It used to be that a 1500/1600 on the math and reading sections would be a top-notch score. Now you need a 1540/1600 to be on par.
- It seems like The College Board went out of its way to include 1-2 tricky questions on each section. It’s like they tried to compensate for the rest of the exam being easier. Expect these 1-2 questions to be the difference between a great score and an ivy-league score. Of course, this was always the case but now it’s even more pronounced.
- The timing is very lax. I can see The College Board reducing the timing for each section in the future. I had ample time to review my work and double-check tough questions on every section. Contrast this with the ACT, which requires that you rush through every section to finish on time.
- The math was harder than The College Board practice tests. Expect to find one of the math sections much harder than the other (i.e. non-calculator way harder than the calculator or vice-versa). This has been the case for a lot of my students as well.
- There was very little trigonometry if any on my exam. A lot of people have been making a big deal out of trig being on the exam, but realize that it’s a very small component (1-2 questions max).
- All the math strategies that helped on the old exam are still very much relevant to the new one (Making Up Numbers, Plugging in Answer Choices)
- Because there are only 4 answer choices for each question, the math section is much more vulnerable to pattern recognition. For example, you can easily narrow down the answer choices for a vertex-form question just by knowing what vertex-form looks like.
- You should know how to do the following by hand for the non-calculator section: basic arithmetic, arithmetic with fractions, factoring, completing the square.
- The difficulty of the reading section was on par with The College Board practice tests.
- Expect a tricky supporting evidence question (the ones that ask which lines best support your previous answer). The secret to getting these right is a two-step process: 1) Try to figure out the lines before you see the answer choices, and 2) Always ask yourself whether the lines you chose actually support your previous answer. On the trickier ones, there will be a trap answer choice that supports the passage’s main idea or another related point in the passage. Because this trap answer mirrors the passage, it will probably relate to the prior answer you’re trying to support, and you’ll find yourself torn between the correct answer and this trap answer. When this happens, go with the the answer that most directly supports your previous one, not the one that indirectly supports it through the main idea of the passage. I promise this will make more sense once you do some practice.
- Don’t buy into the College Board marketing scheme that implies SAT vocabulary is no longer important. The passages still contain many college-level words, and if you don’t understand them, you won’t fully understand the passage. Vocabulary also comes into play for the word choice questions on the writing and language section. My favorite way to memorize SAT vocab is still Anki.
- There seems to always be a civil rights/women’s rights passage. Other than that, a lot of the passages are more current. There was one about reddit, for example.
- The writing and language section is pretty straightforward and on par with the College Board practice tests. Once you know the grammar rules, you’re pretty set to go. The trickier questions will tend to be those that ask you to choose the right word or place a sentence in the correct spot. Process of elimination is an especially effective strategy on this section.
- The new essay is easier than the old one. First, you’re less likely to get writer’s block because you’re analyzing a passage. Second, the analysis is not hard once you know the rhetorical and persuasive elements to look for. Two of these elements—statistics and word choice—can be found in pretty much every single essay passage. A minimum of 21/24 is what I would consider a great score (at least 7/8 in each of the three grading categories).
- The essay template that I had devised worked extremely well (I got a 7/7/7). There were some subtle things I missed and have since tweaked, but in general, my approach was spot on. I cover everything—the template, all the rhetorical devices you need to know, common mistakes—in my SAT Essay book.
Not too shabby.
If you found this post helpful and want to learn more, check out my books. They contain everything I know about the SAT—all the concepts, strategies, and question types you need to know to get a perfect score.
For the May 2016 test in particular, I devised an essay template for any passage that got me a high score of 21/24 (7/7/7). I share this template and everything else—all the rhetorical devices you need to know, what I did right, and the subtle things I missed—in my new SAT Essay book.
Even though we’re dealing with a new exam, the path to a higher score hasn’t changed. It just comes down to review and practice. Find as much practice as you can and do all of it. Sit down and actually write the essays too.
Start at least several months before your test date, preferably over the summer. Do all 4 Official Practice Tests. Do the practice PSAT. Download the SAT Question of the Day App and do all those questions. Get a list of vocab words and start studying them (you get one for free when you sign up to my newsletter). There will also be at least one released test floating about by the time you take the exam, so get your hands on that as well.
Use The College Panda books and any others to review and practice the concepts you’re weak in. Then when you think you’ve exhausted every resource you have, redo all the practice tests. I guarantee you’ll still get stuff wrong that you glazed over the first time. That’s a good thing. Covering those loose ends is where the real learning happens.
If you still need more practice, start doing old SAT exams. They’re harder but everything you learn will carry over. I promise.
This process takes a lot of hard work but if you manage to get through it, you’ll be on your way to a perfect score.