Link Round-Up: Changes to the SAT

The details of the changes to the SAT have come out over the last week, and they’re fascinating. You can read the official release on the College Board website here. There’s an increased focus on “real-world” problems and less focus on the so-called “SAT words” that led students to study sometimes obscure (but often pretty valuable) vocabulary. There are good write-ups on the changes in the New York Times and the Washington Post that offer helpful context and information on the changes.

Doesn't the smiley face just say it all?The two pieces that I’m most excited about deal with preparation and grading. College Board is partnering with Khan Academy to offer a suite of free prep courses for the SAT. This is huge–and it could be a huge blow to the testing-industrial complex (see these guys and these guys and these guys). One big criticism of the current SAT is that students who have the resources to do extensive, expensive test preparation are the ones who get the highest scores. Offering high-quality free resources through Khan Academy might offer many, many more students the same sort of leg up.

It’s also exciting that the grading system has changed. It is currently the case that students earn a point for a right answer and lose 1/4 of a point for an incorrect answer. That will go away in Spring 2016. Instead, the SAT will change to the same grading system that’s used by the ACT: students only earn points for correct answers and are not penalized for incorrect answers. Now that the SAT has changed their system–or, now that they’ve removed the so-called “penalty for guessing”–more students might elect to take the SAT. I’ve known many students who’ve elected to take the ACT over the SAT to avoid this very issue. Indeed, it’s been an increasing national trend as students have turned away from the SAT and toward the ACT.

While I know College Board is using a lot of language around fairness and equity as they discuss this change, I can’t help but wonder if this change is partly motivated by a desire to draw students back to their test and away from that of their competitor. These are nonprofits, but they’re also businesses. Additionally, making the SAT’s essay optional–as it was until the last redesign in 2005–also makes the new SAT look a lot more like the essay-optional ACT.

The language the College Board uses to describe the new test aligns well (purposefully so) with the Common Core State Standards, a set of standards being used for curriculum and evaluation in schools across the country. While the Common Core is not without controversy, it is the law of the land in many parts of the country, and it’s interesting to see the SAT aligning itself more closely with its language and content. At best, this means that the folks who design and administer the SAT are eager to test students on what they’re actually learning in schools, and they’re uniquely poised to do so given this new set of national standards that are meant to ensure that all American students are learning certain core academic skills. At best, this means that the College Board is working to make the test more relevant to what’s going on in schools and perhaps a better measure of students’ academic abilities. 

More cynically, though, I think that these changes speak to the SAT’s decreasing relevance. The spin here is that the SAT’s redesign is making it more relevant to high schools and colleges. I’d argue, though, that changing its format may not achieve that goal. A student’s course grades are often a much better indicator of their abilities as a student. There are so many tasks associated with participating in class, turning in regular homework, completing projects, and taking tests in school–all of those grades will say more about a student’s capabilities than two Saturdays when they were locked in a room for several hours with a scantron. It’s hard to design any test that’s going to effectively communicate all of the things that a course grade communicates. In that vein, more and more colleges are moving to test-optional status for their admission applications (see the FairTest.org website to learn more about participating schools), and I wonder how long the SAT lasts as that list gets longer. Truly, I think that the minute Harvard and Princeton go test-optional, the whole model collapses. That may not be imminent–indeed, it may never happen. But I think that’s the real pressure at stake in these changes.

Moreover, none of these ideas are really innovations. The new SAT is more like the ACT (which more kids are taking already), aligns with Common Core State Standards alignment (which most schools are using already), and now partners with Khan Academy (which people already like). None of the is new–instead, it’s a collection of other good things that are done well by other people. 

Overall, I think College Board does a lot of good in the world and I think the people who work there have good intentions for education and advocacy. I also think they’re eager to continue to exist.

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