SAT exam to undergo major revision by 2016

Courtesy Texas Educator

The organization that runs the SAT college-entrance exam in the U.S. is shaking up its format and scoring—and potentially the $1 billion test-preparation industry that has grown up around it—as it looks to narrow economic and demographic disparities in attaining higher education.

Out are the fancy vocabulary words, mandatory essays and recently adopted 2,400-point grading scale. In are questions that demand more analysis and familiarity with a narrower range of subjects as well as a return to the 1,600-point scale. Also in the works is a partnership to offer free online tutoring to counter the advantage wealthier students can gain from private test-preparatory tutors.

David Coleman, president of the College Board, which runs the test, said the SAT was out of touch with what students are learning and was perceived to be a better assessment of “privilege rather than merit.”

For decades, the SAT, which was taken by nearly 1.7 million students last year, was the pre-eminent college-entrance examination in the nation. But its market share is waning. In 2012, for the first time, more high-school students took the rival ACT. Last year, that margin expanded to 200,000, according to FairTest, a testing-watchdog organization.

The ACT, which traditionally has been taken by students in the Midwest, is making notable inroads into the coasts—where the SAT has long prevailed, according to Paul Weeks, vice president of consumer engagement for nonprofit ACT Inc. The ACT has contracts to test all the 11th graders in 13 states—including some along the coasts—which has propelled its numbers in recent years. Several more states will be joining shortly, Mr. Weeks said.

That growth has put the SAT, formerly known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, on the defensive, and not for the first time.

The changes to the SAT—which take effect in the spring of 2016—follow changes in 2005 after the University of California System threatened to stop considering it because they were unhappy with the analogy section of the test. That change brought about the new 2,400-point grading scale.

In a news conference on Wednesday, Mr. Coleman acknowledged standardized tests’ shortcomings.

“It’s time to admit that the SAT and ACT have become disconnected from the work of our high schools,” he said in a statement.

Mr. Coleman, an architect of the Common Core education standards rolling out to K-12 schools across the U.S. with backing from the Obama administration, hopes to close that gap by aligning the new SAT with the skills he believes are more predictive of college success.

For instance, the new reading section will ask students to support their answers from evidence in a passage provided. Obscure vocabulary words such as prevaricator, sagacious and ignominious will disappear in favor of words like synthesis and empirical that shift in different contexts.

The math section will draw from fewer topics, but mastery of those that are on the test is more likely to be predictive of student readiness and career training, Mr. Coleman said. Calculators will be allowed in only some of the math sections, rather than throughout.

And essays will no longer be mandatory. Those who choose to take them will analyze evidence and explain how an author builds an argument. The current essays come without source material, so there is no way to gauge the accuracy of the essays.

In another big change, the College Board said it would coordinate with colleges to help students with few resources better understand their options and avail themselves of pathways to college. To that end, a consortium of schools has agreed to accept as many as four free applications from these students.

Mr. Coleman cited the lack of access to advanced-placement courses, which also are run by the College Board, among Latinos and African-Americans.
“These patterns of access, if allowed to continue, will build an iron wall of inequality for the next generation,” Mr. Coleman said.

Steve Syverson, a board member with the National Association for College Admissions Counselors, expressed some skepticism at the College Board’s motives for arranging free college applications.

“The other thing it will do is encourage students to take the SAT instead of the ACT,” he said. “I wonder if whether they’re looking out there and wonder, What is the best way to get our market share back?”

The partnership with Khan Academy, a nonprofit education website, is designed to flatten the advantage of wealthier students, who are more likely to have access to private test tutors. Students will have access to SAT-specific Khan tutorials at no cost.