Look At What’s Changing: The SAT College Admissions Test

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By Michael K. Smith, Ph.D.



Once again, the SAT, the oldest and most famous college admissions test, is changing. The College Board has redesigned both the SAT and PSAT with the new PSAT starting in the fall of 2015 and the first new SAT in the spring of 2016. Why would the College Board change its most famous assessment? Does this change have anything to do with the challenges it faces from its major competitor, the ACT college admissions test?

The College Board feels that today’s students are ill prepared for college and for the workforce, given high rates of remedial work required in postsecondary education. The College Board states that it must do all it can “to help all students not only be ready for college and workforce training programs but also succeed in them.” To accomplish this herculean task, the College Board acknowledges that the SAT, its “flagship college and career readiness assessment,” needs to change. To measure what is needed, “the redesigned SAT has been designed for greater focus, relevance, and transparency while retaining the test’s tradition of being a valuable predictor of college and career readiness and success.”

What I find rather amusing are the implications that the SAT, for decades the flagship assessment and the most widely used college admissions tool, must now be more focused, relevant, and transparent suggesting that this assessment did not previously have these characteristics! The SAT underwent a significant revision in 2005, when the test added writing skills, an essay, and a change to its total scoring scale (from 1600 to 2400). At that time, the College Board claimed that the “new SAT” was more closely aligned with high and college expectations. In less than ten years, the College Board seems to have decided that this was a mistake and that it needs to start over from scratch.

The documents supplied by the College Board do provide more detail about the test specifications of the new SAT. “We will make the redesigned SAT the most transparent exam in the assessment field…What the test measures will be no mystery. How we go about measuring students’ reading, writing, language, and mathematics skills will be widely known.” Once again, these statements suggest the irony behind the decade’s old struggle to get ready for the SAT: it has been a mystery. It has been such a mystery that students have sought special test preparation programs to prepare for the exam. Alternatively, they have taken the ACT, the other college admissions test.

…test preparation for this new SAT/PSAT will be just as important as it has been in the past (and also equally important for the ACT).

The Reading Test will now have students read and analyze challenging prose passages drawn from a range of content areas. These content areas will include not only literary passages but also texts drawn from science, social studies, history, and current information. Sentence completions have now been discarded. Therefore, now all those SAT vocabulary-building workbooks are obsolete! The Writing and Language Test will test students’ ability to revise and edit texts particularly using conventions of standard written English. Instead of standalone questions, this test will measure writing and language skills in the context of longer passages. The SAT Essay will now be optional. The Math Test will undergo the most dramatic changes. Math questions will now focus more on algebra, statistics, and trigonometry. Finally, the new SAT will revert to its “old” scoring scale: 200 to 800 for Math and 200 to 800 for the combined Reading/Writing and Language Test.

This redesign of the SAT must be put in context of the challenges posed by the ACT. The number of ACT test-takers has risen dramatically in the past decade, to the extent that, by 2013, the ACT had overtaken the SAT as the more popular college admissions option. Many states have adopted the ACT and are paying the fees for juniors to take the test. In this past decade, the College Board has seen the fortunes of its flagship assessment decline dramatically.

The College Board claims that “test prep” may not be necessary anymore: “The redesigned SAT will aid these necessary reforms by supporting a fundamental shift in k–12 education from a focus on ‘test prep’ in the limited sense to a focus on rich, challenging course work for all students.” After reviewing the dozens of sample questions for the new SAT available at the College Board website, I believe that test preparation for this new SAT/PSAT will be just as important as it has been in the past (and also equally important for the ACT). The importance of college admissions tests has not diminished. Most colleges and universities use these tests as part of their admissions’ criteria. I will continue to help students prepare for these tests and to achieve their best score for admissions and scholarships.   

Michael K. Smith, Ph.D., is owner of TESTPREP EXPERTS (www.testprepexperts.com ) which prepares students for standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT. He is also a consultant to Discovery Education Assessment. He can reached at mike@testprepexperts.com.

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