Hi, higher-education aspirants: are you still struggling with words like “pellucid”? Here’s a piece of good news: the SAT is dropping burdens like that for students who will take the test after 2016.
As the most widely used college admission marker in the U.S., the SAT is undergoing sweeping overhauls in both format and content. David Coleman, CEO of the College Board, announced in early March that the SAT will make the essay optional, ban calculators from some math sections, cut the penalty for guessing incorrectly, and replace obscure vocabulary with words that students will actually encounter in later college life.
Instead of obscure vocabulary, the new test is more likely to choose words like “synthesis” or base the reading questions on a passage that every student is supposed to read. For example, a student might be asked what the Declaration of Independence means by “all men are created equal”.
The new SAT, changing from a point-scale of 2,400 to 1,600, will be available in the spring of 2016. Current ninth-graders will be the first round of students to take it.
Coleman gave a blunt criticism of the current SAT, a product of his own company, in a speech in Austin, Texas, calling it “disconnected from the work of our high schools.” Apart from the four main revisions, Coleman said that the new SAT will also put more preparation resources online for free, aiming to decrease gaps between students from different family backgrounds. Some critics believe students from wealthy families do better on the SAT because they can afford expensive test preparation classes and tutors.
“These reforms send an important signal to high school students across America,” said William R. Fitzsimmons, the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard College, in an email. “If you work hard in the classroom on a daily basis, you will significantly improve your chances of doing well on the SAT, getting into the college of your choice.”
The first College Board exams were created in 1901 by a group of leading American universities to offer high school students one universal exam instead of several exams for each university they applied to. It was an essay-only entrance exam because public and private schools offered different curricula.
Since the 1920s, the the test has been seen as a gauge of intelligence: the SAT first stood for the Scholastic Aptitude Test. James Bryant Conant, the President of Harvard in the 1920s, deemed it a tool for identifying the most talented people outside Harvard’s usual pool of privileged applicants, according to Nicholas Lemann, the chair of Columbia University’s School of Journalism, who has done research on the history of the SAT.
It wasn’t until more recent years that the SAT became a widely taken test to measure high school students’ in-class learning. In 1926, students were offered multiple choices. In 1941, the test was normalized to ensure fair scores in terms of different versions. In 1965, African American students that were turned away from the SAT were given equal chances to sit for the test. In 1977, the SAT allowed students to take it six times in a year. In 1990, responding to the uncertainty that the test validated intelligence, the “A” in SAT was changed from “Aptitude” to “Assessment” before the whole acronym was scrapped in 1993: the letters no longer stand for anything. In 2005, the essay section was introduced, adding another 800 points to the previous 1,600. At the same time, third-year high-school was added to the test, to make it more reflective of the in-class academic performance of high school students.
The change in 2005 is the second last revision of SAT, raising the total point scale to 2,400. However, the College Board has now cut it back to 1,600, drawing some criticism and puzzlement from the education community.
“Personally I think the SAT is becoming more like the ACT,” said Joe Clifford, Director of Communications at Buckingham Browne & Nichols School, in his office. Buckingham Browne & Nichols is a private school for students from kindergarten to 12th grade in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Our students like the ACT better because the essay is optional, and its format is subject based. I think the SAT is also shaping itself that way.”
According to statistics from the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a nonprofit organization aiming to promote quality and equal education, SAT average scores have dropped by 20 points since 2006, when the test was revised to include a writing section. From 2006 to 2012, the number of SAT participants dropped by 198,590, while that of ACT increased by 459,562. In 2012, the ACT surpassed the SAT as the most popular college entrance exam in the U.S.
Can the SAT regain its popularity by making the essay optional?
James Montague, Program Director of Boston Latin School, doesn’t believe so. “An optional essay? Non-issue for us,” answered Montague, in an email. “I suspect most of the highly selective colleges will still want the essay and that means that most of our students will still need to take it.”
Montague commended the elimination of the guessing penalty and said he has advocated for this for more than 20 years. He reserved further comments until more details are revealed.
“We still can’t make a lot of comments since the new test is in two years,” said Lynn Williams, Coordinator of Guidance at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. “But we are happy to see that the obscure vocabulary has been removed, because it’ll help lots of students from immigrants’ families [who] speak English as a second language.”
Twenty percent of students at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School are from immigrant families, according to Williams. The 2010-2012 American Community Survey shows that 28.1 percent of Cambridge residents are foreign-born and have languages such as Spanish, French, Haitian Creole, Chinese, Portuguese, and African languages as their mother tongue.
In fact, the vocabulary reform may be exciting not only to students in the U.S., but also those who are taking the SAT in other countries and are applying for American universities. Siyue Wang, an instructor at the Beijing Bureau of New Oriental School, China’s largest private educational institution specialized in preparation for tests such as TOFEL, GRE, IELTS, and SAT, said in a phone call that it’s a positive move for test takers in China.
“On the other hand, we can see that the new SAT focuses more on students’ academic ability. Students cannot get a high score in reading simply by memorizing obscure vocabularies. Instead, they have to really understand the points of a passage.” Wang said he believes that the SAT is becoming harder for Chinese students.
Is the new SAT testing more for students’ academic abilities?
Colin Riley, director of Media Relations at Boston University (BU) gave an unequivocal answer: “No.”
“We don’t think standardized tests can show students’ academic abilities,” said Riley. “Tests can never prepare students for college. In a package of application, we view students as a whole instead of measuring them with scores or numbers.” Riley said BU believes that high school transcripts speak for students’ academic capabilities.
Then why does BU still require a standardized test for application?
After pausing for a few seconds, Riley said, “We expect to see consistency in students’ transcripts and their standardized tests. But the transcripts are more important.”