Test Prep

The "New" SAT

Unless you live on a planet circling Alpha Centauri, you have no doubt heard about the dramatic changes to that venerable gatekeeper of higher education, the SAT. Speaking of those three letters (“SAT"), I discovered something oddly interesting. I wanted to check the College Board's (CB) site to see if these changes had any effect on the actual name of the SAT. It has undergone some changes in the past. It was once known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test for many years. Then, after a lot of criticism about what the test actually accomplished, it became the Scholastic Assessment Test, which is what it goes by these days.

Getting back to that oddly interesting point I mentioned, I checked the CB's site to see how they were referring to the SAT in light of all these cataclysmic changes. What I found was a ton of “SAT" references but not a single mention of the “Scholastic Assessment Test." This suggests two scenarios to me. First, and in keeping with their royal attitude, the College Boarders may feel that the test's brand is so strong that they don't need to waste time explaining what “SAT" stands for. “How could anyone (except, perhaps, an Alpha Centaurian) not know what the SAT is?" the CB may rhetorically ask.

A second possibility may be that the CB is a bit hesitant to cling to its belief that the SAT actually does “assess" anything at all, other than the test takers ability to pay the registration fee. Thus, the CB rests on its hearty laurels and just uses the tried-and-true designation, SAT. Incidentally, for all you out there reading this, if you can find a reference to the “Scholastic Assessment Test" anywhere on the College Board site, please use the comments section below to post a URL of any page that does mention the full name of the test. Just call me curious.

Of course, there are a number of conspiracy theories about why the CB made these changes. One school of thought says that the ACT is kicking CB's derriere from a popularity and marketing perspective, so CB has said, “Oh! Me too!" Another theory is that CB wants to make the test more minority-friendly by “dumbing it down," as the conspirators like to say. Granted, that suspicion is rather offensive, especially to minorities.

Yet another unsubstantiated claim is that CB's initiative to provide free test prep through Khan Academy is a broadside aimed at the mammoth test-prep industry out there. What do the test preppers think about this? Well, here's what Seppy Basili, vice president of Kaplan Test Prep, said in a press release regarding the College Board's upcoming changes to the SAT:

“We think it's terrific that the College Board is making SAT prep widely available for students of all income levels. Not only are they validating that test prep works, but it's something we've been doing for years. In fact, we hope they extend these kinds of opportunities to their AP programs as well."

Whether or not that speaks uniformly for the entire test prep industry remains to be seen.

So, what about these changes, exactly? In most reports about the changes, five specifics usually get cited:

1. The essay section will become optional.

2. Calculator use will be restricted.

3. Free test prep will be available.

4. Vocabulary words will be more “realistic."

5. “Founding document" (Declaration of Independence, etc.) analysis will be required.

Some observers, however, have noted additional changes. Eliana Docterman, writing in Time, notes nine changes. Here are the ones you might not see in other reviews:

– Students must use evidence in their answers.

“… students will be asked to support their answer with evidence and to cite specific passages."

– Math section will cover fewer topics.

“… The new math section will focus on fewer math topics that students must know more in depth."

– Students will not be penalized for incorrect answers.

“… New “rights-only" scoring will not penalize students for incorrect answers."

– Smaller scores.

“… The new test [scores] will be out of 1600."

– Digital SATs will be available.

“… the new exam will be offered both in print and digitally."

Amid all the excitement about the changes (that won't go into effect until 2016, though), there have been some naysayers. David French, of National Review Online, sees a political motivation.

… these changes are designed to take on “inequality and injustice." Yes, you read that correctly. The SAT is in the social-justice business. First, it's embracing “openness" through its partnership with the Khan Academy, a free online attempt to circumvent and undercut paid test-prep services like Kaplan. Second, it's narrowing the test itself. In addition to making the essay optional, the vocabulary and math sections will change …

… Ironically enough, the SAT has helped create the very elite it now seeks to restrain. As Dean Kalahar notes in American Thinker, the SAT was created in part to end “discrimination and aristocracy" in higher education. No longer was your family name the most important component of your application, now it was your SAT score. …

As for College Confidential discussion forum posters, many have made quite substantial comments regarding the changes. Here's a sampling from one well-visited thread:

– … While I agree that this fact is troubling, the people who are complaining are attacking the messenger. The K-12 education process in the US results in students in wealthier districts obtaining a better education. Everyone knows that. There are many causes, but in the end, on average, they just know more. So why ignore that problem, and then complain about the test at the end of the process that points it out?

Furthermore, the fact that SAT scores do not do a good job of predicting college grades is well understood. Appropriately, students tend to pick colleges, college majors, and courses that they believe they can succeed in. Students with low/modest scores are more likely to attend less selective colleges, and/or choose majors with lower levels of rigor. Students with Top scores are more likely to go to a highly selective college and/or major in something more rigorous such as science or engineering. The low scoring student and the high scoring student end up with a similar GPA, but it is very unlikely that a student with a 1400 SAT score could possibly succeed in the same Linear Algebra class that a student with a 2250 SAT score might be taking. The test successfully distinguished these two students level of knowledge …

– So, for all those complaining about the SAT, I ask you a question:

What would you have instead, to replace it?

Grades? Nope, they vary too widely even between two teachers of the same subject at the same school, let alone across the US. Recs/essays/EC's? Far too subjective. AP's/SAT2's? Reasonable start, but not everyone takes APs/SAT2's, and not the same ones or in the same quantity.

I seriously can't think of anything else. The fact of the matter is that SAT is roughly correlated to performance in college – also note that the correlation is somewhat offset by the fact that the very selective colleges are rigorous academically, and even some high-SAT scorers will do poorly there. And vice versa – at less-selective colleges where classes are relatively easier to pass, even the lower-range SAT scorers may do extremely well …

– It's not as simple as “richer students attend expensive schools and so earn a better education" or to quote Much2learn “they just know more". They also get to hire private tutors, take the test more times, afford better prep etc etc..this also contributes to them getting higher test scores..more so than just attending a school in a wealthy district.

The alternative? Making the admissions process test optional. Bowdoin College is among the many that have done it and is a good example to follow.

And no, getting a low score in the Math section doesn't correlate to anyone's mathematical ability …


So, how to put a cap on all this? Well, from my point of view, this comment, take from Greg Toppo's USAToday article, New SAT part of a changing admissions process, sums things up nicely:

“More than 800 colleges and universities already make submitting scores optional. A study released last month by Bates College researchers found that there were only “trivial differences" in the academic performance of students who did and didn't submit SAT or ACT scores with their applications. Cumulative GPAs of the two groups differed by only .05 points, and graduation rates differed by just .6 percentage points."

My bottom line opinion? Resolved: The “new" SAT (or any other kind of standardized college admissions test): Who needs it? You can quote me on that.


Don't forget to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.