It used to be called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, and only the college-bound were encouraged to take it. The SAT served as an important sorting tool in the scramble for seats in competitive universities but was not that important if you planned to head to a state college.
In more recent years the College Board, which administers the SAT — whose initials no longer stand for anything — has tinkered with the test to respond to criticisms of cultural bias. A writing section was added in 2005, and the top score was upped to 2400 points, up from the longtime perfect score of 1600. More high-schoolers were encouraged to see themselves as college bound and to take the test. Then kids were advised to take the test multiple times and start younger, and thus grew an entire generation of students prepping to sit for the exam.
Now the SAT is about to make another big change. The top score will revert to 1600 points. The essay portion will become optional, and penalties for wrong answers will be dropped. There will also be an end to some vocabulary words such as "prevaricator" and "sagacious," in favor of words more commonly used in school and work.
In math, instead of testing a wide range of concepts, the new exam will focus on a few areas, like algebra, deemed most needed for college and life afterward. A calculator will be allowed only on certain math questions instead of on the entire math portion. Students will have the option of taking the test on a computer.
What does the new SAT overhaul mean for standardized testing? We consulted two experts for the Inside Story.
Inside Story: What do you make of the latest changes to the SAT and what they mean for higher education?
Anne Hyslop: My work spans higher education to secondary education. The changes the College Board has made strike at the idea that anyone should be able to do well, regardless of their background or income. Before, there was a sense that a lot of wealthy students were spending a lot of money on test prep. The material was not taught in school, so you had to learn it elsewhere. The changes that are being made are meant to flatten the playing field. This will give a better sense of whether the students are actually ready for college because it will be based more on school curricula.
What about making the writing component optional?
Colleges will determine whether and how to ascribe value to that section. College admissions officers were giving feedback that they did not consider the writing piece a great window into the applicants’ abilities. It was more of a personal essay, which they were already asking the students to do through the personal statement. This essay will be more about the kind of writing you do in college.
New America’s Education Policy Program
Is there an argument against this kind of test’s existing altogether?
It is worth considering whether this is a valid measure of students’ ability to be successful in college. The SAT may not be the best indicator of college achievement. But combined with grades and other metrics, it does mean something. And for colleges sifting through dozens of applications, it helps make some students stand out.
From an equity perspective, the latest changes go a long way toward fixing the problem. Putting test prep material online through the Khan Academy is incredibly useful. If you’re going to use these standardized tests, you have to make sure they are as fair as possible.
What’s your take on the changes to the SAT?
Rafael Figueroa: It is pretty mixed. We understand the need and that the need is based on finances. SAT is falling behind on (testing) market share, and they are trying to get ahead on market share. It is not ingenuous.
As for the substance of the changes — they are trying to make the SAT more like the ACT. In which case, I am beginning to wonder why the SAT should exist at all. There is already so much stress on students and parents. Adding an additional component of change here — I am wondering who that really serves.
But won’t the changes help low-income students by making this more about school content?
I think there are a number of reasons why the current SAT discriminates against low-income students. There are a number of factors. Standardized tests are useful for admissions when included among multiple factors. The SAT was supposed to be an aptitude test, and the ACT was a content knowledge tool. If the SAT is moving toward ACT, then why have the SAT? And if ACT is the best, then, again, why have the SAT?
dean, Albuquerque Academy
Given the imperfections, should we have a standardized test at all?
I am not sure we would lose a ton if we did not have standardized testing at all. They do currently add some balance to the factors of curriculum, grades, demographic and family backgrounds. They do add some predictive value amid all of those factors. But is it worth all of the stress, fuss and expense? I would say maybe not. I know a lot of college admissions professionals who use them very well and appropriately, though.
In response to the news, how will you be doing things differently at Albuquerque Academy?
My first inclination is that we would take a wait-and-see approach. Any big change, like the one in 2005, colleges take a wait-and-see approach. I’ll be telling parents that we’re waiting to see how things pan out.