The SAT is being overhauled. What does it mean?
BY FRANCESCA HUEMER KELLY
If you’re a student, a parent or even a grandparent, most likely you’ve encountered the SAT. For much of its century-long existence, this multiple-choice test that aims to assess readiness for higher education has been one of the keys to college.
While a student’s high school grade-point average is still the most important part of the college application, colleges also use SAT results in evaluating applicants.
Once called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, then the Scholastic Assessment Test, it’s now simply the SATTM. For decades a two-part (Reading and Mathematics) test, the SAT incorporated a mandatory Writing section in 2005.
Recently, the College Board, the nonprofit corporation that oversees the SAT, announced that the biggest revamp in its history will be implemented in the spring of 2016. The SAT will reflect more of what is actually being learned in America’s schools, and the College Board will make test preparation accessible to students of all income levels.
“It is time to admit that the SAT and the ACT [American College Testing] have become far too disconnected from the work of our high schools,” College Board President David Coleman has said of the planned changes.
While this statement is probably true, Coleman’s inclusion of the ACT college readiness assessment test, the SAT’s biggest competitor, was no accident. Detractors claim that the much-heralded SAT revamp is simply a profit-oriented response to the rapidly rising popularity of ACT.
But Coleman stresses that the restructured SAT with its increased accessibility is a game-changer in American higher education, and returns to the original mission and purpose of the SAT: to circumvent the “boarding school to Ivy League” system of college admissions that was prevalent in the early 20th century—and which some insist still exists today.
In 2012, for the first time ever, more students chose to take the ACT than the SAT.
In about 1900, professors from a dozen leading U.S. universities formed the College Entrance Examination Board (later the College Board) and developed a standardized entrance examination to level the playing field for college applicants.
The early version of the SAT required simple essay-writing, but by 1926 the College Board had adapted psychologist Carl Brigham’s aptitude test for the military into a multiple-choice test for college applicants.
For years, controversy has surrounded the SAT, with opponents alleging that it is not a good predictor of college success and cannot measure important traits like creativity. The fact that a student can “prep” for the exam has also been a source of contention: rather than measuring material learned, detractors say, the SAT merely measures test-taking skills.
By 1959, SAT found itself facing a rival: ACT, a different sort of college entrance examination developed by the nonprofit American College Testing. ACT has five sections: English, mathematics, science, reading and an optional writing portion. In 2012, for the first time ever, more students chose to take the ACT than the SAT.
The big picture on the changes is that the SAT will reflect more of what is actually being learned in America’s schools, and the College Board will make test prep accessible to students of all income levels. Now to the details:
NOTE: The 2016 changes do not affect the SAT 2 subject tests. These subject tests are a good way to demonstrate knowledge in specific subjects, such as biology or psychology, and are best taken at the same time the student is finishing up honors, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate coursework in the same subject, while knowledge is still fresh. For more information on the SAT 2 subject tests, go to http://www.collegeboard.org.
Is the College Board earnest in its commitment to helping students of all income levels do better both on the SAT and in their college years? The answer is a qualified yes.
“I believe that David Coleman is sincere in his attempt to construct a better SAT,” says Professor Les Perelman, a former director of writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Writing and Comparative Media Studies. His published paper, “Mass Market Writing Assessments As Bullshit,” detailed his own students’ experiments with using “made-up facts” in their SAT essays and receiving top scores.
Perelman believes an assessment test similar to the British A-levels, which generally employ writing skills in a Q-and-A format, would be a much better predictor of college success than either the SAT or the ACT, however.
And that is perhaps the biggest question of all: Are these tests even necessary for college admission? After all, more than 800 colleges do not require the SAT or ACT from their applicants, and the list is growing.
As Perelman points out, “The person who created the SAT, Carl Campbell Brigham, the secretary of the College Board in the early 20th century and a professor of psychology at Princeton, repudiated it in the 1930s.”
Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, believes the announced changes are merely cosmetic. “Rather than improve the measurement quality of the SAT, most of the upcoming adjustments seem designed to win back market share from the ACT and slow adoption of test-optional policies,” he says.
Still, several college administrators, including Harvard’s Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons, welcome the changes. Fitzsimmons believes they send a message that “good hard work is going to pay off.” Many others are taking a wait-and-see approach.
College of Wooster Senior Associate Director of Admissions Cathy Finks appreciates “the willingness of the College Board to keep the SAT relevant to today’s students and help it be a better predictor for higher education preparedness.” But, she adds, “As the changes have just been announced, we look forward to learning more over the coming years.”
Meanwhile, Finks echoes the sentiments of most college administrators when she says, “We have found the work a student puts into their four years of high school—thus, the transcript —is the best predictor for success and retention in the Wooster classroom.”
The SAT is here for the indefinite future, but the proposed changes do signify a realization that better assessment tools are needed. Time will tell if these changes will make a difference in the application process. In the meantime, as always, the best preparation for college is getting good grades in high school.