Plans for New SAT Spark Mixed Reviews

March 06, 2014

The first glimpse of the brand-new product arrived with a slew of promises. It would "open doors of opportunity" and "transform possibilities for everyone and anyone." Close your eyes, and this might have been a pitch for some wondrous handheld device—and not the college-entrance examination the world loves to hate.

On Wednesday the College Board unveiled plans for the redesigned SAT, which the nonprofit organization plans to roll out in the spring of 2016. The new exam will contain "relevant" vocabulary words, focus in greater depth on fewer math topics, and ask students to cite specific passages that support their answers.

The revised exam will have three sections: "evidence-based" reading and writing, mathematics, and an essay. The latter section will be optional and will be scored separately, meaning the SAT once again will have a 1600-point scale, just like when your father took it.

On Wednesday college counselors and admissions officials offered mixed reviews of the initial blueprints. Ralph Figueroa, director of college guidance at the Albuquerque Academy, described the new test as the College Board’s attempt to keep pace with the ACT, now the nation’s most widely used admission exam.

"The word is ‘redundant,’" he said. "If it’s going to be more like the ACT, then what do we need to take the SAT for then? Why do we need to invest in new guidebooks and new programs that are going to be on the market? It’s all just revenue generation for the College Board."

Many were just beginning to wade into the specifics. "My first reaction—ambitious and bold," said Gregory Roberts, dean of admissions at the University of Virginia. "But what’s it going to mean? The devil’s in the details. The SAT is sort of a blunt instrument, and it’s clear it’s not a perfect tool."

Whether the test can become a better one will surely remain an open question. For months David Coleman, the College Board’s president, has described plans to make the SAT "beautiful," a remark that has sparked both laughter and curiosity among admissions officials. Who uses that adjective to describe what’s now nearly a four-hour test? Someone who has read a lot of Chaucer and Shakespeare. Someone who helped write the Common Core curriculum. And someone who leads an organization that has long wrestled with a paradox: Its signature test benefits wealthy students over poor ones, hindering the very goal its members so often promote—expanding college access.

Speaking from Texas on Wednesday, Mr. Coleman acknowledged that high-stakes exams reflect educational inequalities. Although that may not be the College Board’s fault, he said, "it is our problem." He described his plans to broaden his organization’s mission "to go beyond assessment."

To that end, Mr. Coleman announced two new strategies for helping low- and middle-income students. The first: All SAT takers who are financially eligible will directly receive four admission-fee waivers. That means students will no longer have to request the waivers through high-school counselors. As a College Board spokeswoman said on Wednesday, "we’ll be putting it directly in their hands."

The College Board also plans to team up with the Khan Academy to provide free online test preparation, including access to previously unreleased practice problems and instructional videos about the exam. With that, an organization that long ago claimed students could not prepare for the SAT has embarked on a 21st-century experiment to zap test prep around the planet.

‘No More Mysteries’

The strategy seems of a piece with Mr. Coleman’s vow to make the SAT more approachable and less like a riddle to solve. "No more mysteries," he said. As many educators have long suspected, the College Board intends to better weave into the exam what students are taught in high schools. What once was the Scholastic Aptitude Test and later the Scholastic Assessment Test, it seems, will inch even closer to an achievement test.

As described by Mr. Coleman, the next incarnation of the SAT will require students to think harder, analyze more, and anchor their answers to evidence.

In the reading and writing section, students will be asked to support answers with evidence: Some questions will require them to cite a specific part of a passage to back up the answer they choose. They will also encounter documents in an array of disciplines, including history, social studies, and science. And students will be asked to analyze both text and data, such as by identifying inconsistencies between them.

As for vocabulary, Mr. Coleman said the exam would omit obscure and ponderous "SAT words," replacing them with words, such as "empirical" and "synthesis," that students will encounter in college.

The new SAT will also include passages from historical documents, such as the Declaration of Independence and Martin Luther King Jr.’s "Letter From a Birmingham Jail." (The current exam draws from texts that are more obscure.)

The math section, which now includes a range of topics covered in high school, will emphasize problem solving and data analysis, algebra, and more-complex equations and functions that students will need to tackle calculus. Calculators will be allowed on only some portions of the math section.

Another change: Students will no longer have points deducted for incorrect answers. Currently, each wrong answer results in a quarter-point deduction.

The new exam, which will be offered in paper and digital form, will last for three hours, and the optional essay will require an additional 50 minutes. Although the College Board did not yet have cost figure, a spokeswoman said the test would not cost more than it does now ($51).

Robert A. Schaeffer, public-education director for FairTest, said the partnership with the Khan Academy would not reduce the market for expensive, personalized SAT tutoring that wealthier families can afford. "Like most of the other College Board initiatives announced today," he said, "this move is less significant than its promoters claim."

He also questioned whether the new test would predict college outcomes more accurately, or assess low-income students more fairly.

Rethinking the Essay

Anyone who experienced a sense of déjà vu upon hearing all this could be forgiven. After all, the College Board last revamped the SAT less than a decade ago. The main selling point of the current model, which made its debut in 2005, was a 25-minute essay—the same feature the College Board has overhauled and rendered optional.

Unlike the current SAT essay, the new version will measure students’ ability to analyze source material. How, the prompt might ask, has the author built a persuasive argument? Responses will be scored on the strength of the analysis as well as the coherence of the writing. In short, students will no longer be able to get by writing about their personal experiences.

The College Board says it will not require the essay because of its mixed appeal among colleges: Some admissions offices find the current writing sample useful, but others do not. Moreover, the essay does not contribute significantly to the predictive validity of the SAT, Mr. Coleman said.

At Virginia, Mr. Roberts and his colleagues don’t even look at the SAT essays applicants write—just their scores on the writing portion of the exam. When the essay is no longer part of the SAT, he wondered how many colleges would require or recommend that students write one.

"Colleges will require it if they think it’s a useful tool," he said. "But the College Board’s going to have to convince folks that this is something that will help us evaluate students and predict success."

Although some admissions officers might like to see a timed sample of students’ writing skills, especially if the essays are more revealing, there will be another consideration, Mr. Roberts suggested. Might requiring it deter applicants from applying?

When tests change, a host of questions arise for colleges. Jeff Rickey, vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid at St. Lawrence University, in New York, praised several of the coming changes in the SAT. "I applaud the College Board for tying the test better to what’s needed in college, the way they will provide readings across the curriculum other than just math and English, and also ask for analysis," he said.

Yet Mr. Rickey said those and other shifts will require St. Lawrence to re-examine its test-optional policy, which it adopted seven years ago after finding that ACT and SAT scores did not add much predictive power beyond students’ high-school grades and course rigor. "We will need to do a new validity study," he said. "Depending on what the new test is measuring and how that relates to students’ performance, we may go back to requiring it, if it has validity that tells us we should."

Several years ago, Mr. Rickey served on a panel formed by the National Association for College Admission Counseling to study the use of standardized tests in admissions. The testing commission, as the panel was known, cited a need for equal access to quality test prep. "This partnership with Khan Academy is a great next step," Mr. Rickey said.

Nancy Leopold had mixed feelings. "Great idea and probably much better and more customized online prep than ever before," she wrote in an email. Yet Ms. Leopold, who is executive director of CollegeTracks, a Maryland group that works with low-income and first-generation students, said few students in any socioeconomic group had been motivated enough to seek online resources by themselves. "Still need some knowledgeable, compassionate grownups."

Ms. Leopold was skeptical of other changes in the SAT. "They do not address the underlying access problem," she wrote, "that the College Board’s member colleges rely on a test that has been demonstrated to systematically understate the abilities of low-income and underserved minority students."

Worthy Challenges

Mr. Coleman did not offer an apology for those inequities, but he acknowledged them in various ways. He described his concern about racial inequities among students who take an Advanced Placement math course. He warned of an "iron wall of inequality for the next generation." And he imagined a more-robust role for the College Board’s promotion of access. "We aim to offer worthy challenges," he said, "not artificial obstacles."

Still, his remarks included reminders that the College Board is an entity with many aspirations. One of them, surely, is competition. Why else would he have said that both the ACT and the SAT had become "disconnected" from high-school curricula?

Paul Weeks, vice president for customer engagement at ACT Inc., had heard the remark. "That’s an unfair characterization," he said. His organization conducts a regular curriculum survey to make sure that what’s on the test matches what’s being taught in schools and required by colleges, he explained.

"Most of the changes that were announced today really validate our approach," Mr. Weeks said. "We’ve been on that path for a long time."

Two products, two tests. In the years ahead, colleges and students will decide how different the two really are—and how different the new SAT is from the old one.