The Last Year for the Old SAT

A new SAT is coming, designed to be fairer than the one before it. What it is and how to prepare.

The New SAT.
Photos courtesy of optimarc/Shutterstock.com (wood); studioVin/Shutterstock.com (pencil).


High school students take note:
This upcoming school year will be the last full one for the current incarnation of the SAT. In spring of 2016 the College Board will issue a redesigned test, making eight critical changes they hope will improve the test for students and colleges alike.

In addition, a new PSAT based upon the new test will debut in October 2015. As a result, this upcoming year’s crop of test-takers could be the last to ever need flash cards full of obscure, little-used vocabulary words. And while wild guessing is not going to be rewarded on the new test, wrong answers will no longer be penalized—which for many students might amount to the same thing.


Most notably, this year’s students will be the last who are required to complete the essay, or written test, which just made its debut in 2005—on the new exam it is optional. Many colleges chose to ignore it anyway.

Sarah Gallagher-Dvorak, the former director of undergraduate admissions at George Mason University—who has since moved on to St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana—states that “since the essay came out in 2005 it hasn’t made any change to the way [George Mason] looks at the test, and I can’t foresee it making any difference now.” Michael D. Walsh, the dean of admissions at James Madison University, says “we don’t use the writing portion of either the SAT or the ACT.” Both schools provide their own writing prompts and find those to be far more useful to their decision-making process.


Sarah Gallagher-Dvorak
Photo courtesy of Sarah Gallagher-Dvorak.



Carly Lindauer, senior director of external communications at the College Board acknowledges the essay’s lack of universal acclaim in an e-mail. “One essay alone has not in the past contributed significantly to the overall predictive power of the exam,” she says. “Furthermore, feedback from college admission officers was split; some of them found the essay useful while many did not.” The College Board recommends, though, that students check with their targeted schools before gleefully foregoing the essay—some may still require it.

All of the changes come as more and more educators, students and parents question the necessity for standardized testing in the college admissions process and as the SAT continues to lose market share to its rival the ACT. Many are left to wonder why the test is changing, how it is changing and how they should prepare going forward.

This is the second time in the 21st century that the SAT has undergone a significant redesign. The reason, according to the College Board’s Lindauer, is that “[the College Board’s] members, including admission officers, school counselors, teachers and students, called on us to change the SAT and go beyond assessment to deliver opportunity.” To clarify, she adds “our goal is to support college readiness and success for more students and to make sure that those who are prepared can take full advantage of the opportunities they have earned through their hard work.”

A more cynical explanation for the changes is given by Dr. Ralph G. Perrino, a professor at Northern Virginia Community College who also serves as director of Northern Virginia Tutoring Service, a Fairfax-based company that provides test preparation assistance. “Quite simply, they want their market share back,” he says with a laugh.

According to data compiled by The National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest), the number of students taking the ACT surpassed those taking the SAT for the first time in 2012, completing an upward trend for the ACT that began decades before.

Originally, though, the two were very different tests. 

“I don’t favor one over the other,” says Walsh, “but one of the strengths, in my opinion, of the ACT is that it has always been very strongly linked to the high school curriculum. If you go back and look at the SAT’s original purpose, it was not to be linked to the curriculum, but rather to look at other aspects of a student’s profile.”


James Madison University Dean of Admissions Michael D. Walsh
Photo courtesy of Mike Miriello/James Madison University.



Specifically, the SAT’s original goal, as championed by Harvard President James Bryant Conant in the 1930s, was to make education accessible not just to wealthy private-school elites but to everybody. Conant wrote fervently during the 1940s in Atlantic magazine of his desire to create a “Jeffersonian” society, one in which merit trumps class in providing opportunity. Partnering with the College Board the test was refined with the primary aim of creating a tool for issuing scholarships.

At the time though, educational standards were not nearly as uniform as they are now—which is why the test measured “aptitude” not achievement. The specific goal was not to identify what aspiring students had already learned, but to find their untapped potential. Thus, the SAT has been credited extensively with ushering in a new era of “meritocracy” in which opportunity is tied strictly to ability—not connections, wealth or the class of the individual.

That was the basic idea, anyway.  And it worked, to a point.

Colleges are filled with kids from every background—many of whom are either direct or indirect beneficiaries of this idea of meritocracy—and with students who are far from the upper class, unaffiliated with any private school or other special advantage, who nonetheless attend classes, succeed and move on. Social rank in the intervening decades has become much more fluid, with people moving up and down much more freely. It is no longer the primary factor in determining success, though it is undeniably still important and a conferrer of significant advantage.


University of Virginia Dean of Admission Greg W. Roberts.
Photo courtesy of University of Virginia Media Relations.



But as the idea of meritocracy has taken hold in this country, the practical application of the SAT as a tool to promote it has declined. There have always been wide performance gaps between different demographics, and that gap has been widening over time. “If you look at the data,” says Greg W. Roberts, dean of admission at the University of Virginia, “you’ll find kids from lower socioeconomic groups don’t score as well. That shouldn’t shock anyone—they are often coming from families that are first-generation college or who can’t afford SAT prep.” Recognizing this inequity, the College Board announced two actions along with the test redesign that attempt to level the playing field. First, they announced in a press release that “every income-eligible student who takes the SAT will directly receive four fee waivers to apply to college.” Second, they announced a partnership with Khan Academy to provide free test preparation materials over the internet.   

While considered by many to be a step in the right direction, simply making test prep materials available strikes some as inadequate. “We do outreach [at JMU] with some of the high schools that are in low-income areas throughout the states,” says Walsh, “and we find that it’s easy to talk, but you have to have boots on the ground. For this to work, you have to get people into schools who will really work with these kids and show them what to do.”

“It’s a noble concept,” says Perrino, but “many kids nationwide don’t have access to computers or even the internet. There are kids who drive around with their parents to McDonald’s or Panera and sit in the parking lot just to do their homework each night.”

Even if students do have access to the Internet, practicing for the SATs takes something many teenagers lack: motivation. “In my 31 years,” says Perrino, “I can say that most kids are not self-motivated to practice the SAT.”

As for the test itself, the general consensus among all the educators we spoke with is that the test, over time, is becoming much more curriculum-based, in the same manner as the ACT. Instead of testing a student’s aptitude—using skills like critical thinking or deductive reasoning that might be outside a normal school’s purview—it is increasingly focused on what students have already learned. There are key differences between the new SAT and the ACT—the new SAT targets very specific skills deemed critical for collegiate success, whereas the ACT measures a broader scope of academic mastery—but in the end both tests are now rooting themselves firmly in the curriculum commonly used in the United States.

“When you’re dealing with first-generation students,” says Walsh, “or students in rural areas, or students from the inner city or other low-income areas, the more in-line the test is with the curriculum, the fairer it is for students who are at a disadvantage because those students don’t have access [to assistance] that a more affluent student has.” So the predictive power of both exams now rests in the student’s already acquired abilities. Fairness in 2014 is not about stepping outside the curriculum and finding children who might still succeed—it’s about creating a common curriculum and granting opportunity to anyone who can demonstrate that they have mastered it.

There are two questions raised by the redesigned exam.

First, do we need two tests, the ACT and SAT, that take different approaches but essentially measure the same thing? The University of Virginia, James Madison, George Mason and Virginia Tech all state that they will accept either test, without preference. George Mason goes even further, allowing students to apply without any test scores at all. So these colleges are already, to some extent, answering that question for us with their indifference. They want some kind of test score, but they have no preference which of the two tests they get.


Wynonia Dunn, owner of Excel Learning.
Photo courtesy of Wynonia Dunn.



Wynonia Dunn, the owner of Excel Learning, an online provider of test preparation, says: “When you correlate the two scores, the ACT and the SAT, they are very comparable. As far as having one exclusively and not having a choice, I would probably go with having both.” Having two separate tests gives the students the freedom to target the test most applicable to their skill set or take both, for safety’s sake. But those schools do not care which they receive.

The second question is much broader. Do we need these exams at all? Of the four major colleges mentioned in this article, all of them use the tests differently, but all of them consider the tests to be just one part of a much larger file. “In our holistic view,” says Roberts, “we look at everything a student submits. I would say there is no rank order.” A typical applicant at UVA will complete three writing prompts alongside their high school transcripts and test scores. Students are also are encouraged to take two SAT subject tests. “Given that there are so many variables, the tests do give us a standardization that you don’t get from high school transcripts. But the high school transcript reflects four years of academic work.” 

Gallagher-Dvorak says the SAT can be an important component of a potential applicant’s file at GMU, but it’s not as important as a student’s course work or extra-curricular activities. Admission officers prefer to look first at “the rigor of the courses [applicants] take and the grades they received in those courses.” Walsh, from JMU, agrees: “The commonality of the students we admit is that they’ve taken an above-average curriculum for their school, that they got As and Bs, and that they are involved.”


Dr. Ralph G. Perrino, a professor at Northern Virginia Community College and a director of Northern Virginia Tutoring Service
Photo courtesy of Brenda Schrier of Brenda Schrier Photography.



According to Perrino, preparing to take the SAT or ACT is important, but “the real potential lies in the GPA.” He adds: “I would say to anybody ready to enter college that if you haven’t developed the study skills, the organizational skills or the time-management skills that are necessary to be successful, then the highest SAT score on the face of the Earth isn’t going to help you.”

The College Board redesigned the SAT and partnered with Khan Academy with the stated goal of expanding the opportunities available to disadvantaged students. The hope is to level the playing field between different socioeconomic groups. Some information and sample questions have been released, but the full Khan Academy/College Board practice materials will not be available until spring of 2015, and admissions officers, educators and tutors are all taking a wait-and-see approach until then. But the inequalities in the educational system which the redesigned test seeks to address start well before high school—and as the test becomes increasingly curriculum-based, like its counterpart the ACT, it becomes even more imperative to start early.

“I always tell people that SAT or ACT prep began in the 4th grade,” says Perrino. “If the core reading comprehension, math skills or writing skills are not in place by the time they get to 11th grade there’s
not a lot that you can do.” For parents calling a few weeks before the test, “all we can really do is familiarize your child with the exam so they so they feel comfortable taking it.”

“If your child is in first, second, third or fourth grade, now is the time to begin preparing for the SAT,” Perrino adds, warning of parents who panic after seeing their child’s PSAT scores. “Students who have spent the last eight, nine or 10 years preparing for the SAT, once they’re sophomores, juniors or seniors in high school, they’re ready for it.”

A solid foundation in what he calls “the basics” can prepare a child far better than any tutor or prep course. “Learn good, solid study and organization skills. Learn time management. That’s critical, because it’s the
basis for earning good grades in school.” Beyond that, he recommends that parent’s develop a consistent habit for nurturing their children’s intellectual development.

“Parents should be reading to children on a regular basis, and insist on getting kids away from screen time so they can read.” They should also practice mental math, incorporating lessons from everyday life in the process, practicing at the grocery store or wherever they happen to be with the child. The parent who truly sees a collegiate future for their child needs to “build a love of learning into them so that by the time they get to high school that love of learning, by osmosis, translates into good grades, good test-taking abilities, self-reliance and calm.”

If, however, sophomore year approaches and the student hasn’t fully developed those core skills, they do still have the option to take a class, hire a tutor or access other test-preparation options. The College Board is aiming, through their partnership with Khan Academy and their efforts surrounding the new test, to make those kinds of opportunities available to a broader stretch of the population. But the sort of structured, life-long educational development most critical to college success should actually occur long before the student reaches high school. While the new SAT may seek to address some inequalities in the old test, the real inequalities in children’s education—which have very real consequences for college or real-world success—begin to take root long before the College Board gets involved.


The New SAT

According to the College Board, there will be eight key changes on the redesigned SAT.

1 The test will focus on “relevant words in context”.
Obscure vocabulary words will be removed from the test and students will be asked to read passages and infer a word’s meaning from its use. According to the College Board, the focus will be on “words that students will use throughout their lives—in high school, college and beyond.”

2 The SAT will test a student’s “command of evidence”.
Passages from a wide range of disciplines will be included and students will be asked to, for example, cite a specific quote to support their answer; analyze a piece of text grammatically or substantively; or edit text to support a particular idea.  

3 The essay will be made optional.
It will be designed to mirror college writing assignments, asking a student to read a passage and analyze how the argument has been constructed. Students should check with the schools to which they’re applying to see if they need to take this portion of the test.

4 The test will focus on “the math that matters most”.
Algebra and quantitative reasoning will be at the forefront, along with those areas whose mastery is deemed most critical to move into advanced math.

5 Problems will be “ground in real-world contexts”.
The exam will ask students to solve problems from a range of subjects—verbal questions might be about science, history or literature, and the math portion will model scenarios common to many disciplines or the world at large.

6 The SAT will test “analysis in science, history and social studies”.
The math and verbal skills being tested will be applied to subjects across the board.

7 The test will feature passages from the “founding documents and the great global conversation”.
It will utilize documents deemed essential to the American experience or others from around the world inspired by them.

8 The penalty for wrong answers has been removed.
If you don’t know the answer: guess.

(August 2014)

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