The College Board today announced sweeping and substantive changes to the SATs (click here to get the College Board summary). Note that these changes will go into effect in 2016 and will affect current ninth graders. If you are in 10th through 12th grade, none of these changes apply to you.
Here are my initial thoughts and a review of the changes – before I read what my colleagues and the pundits have to say about the one-hour announcement I just heard streaming live.
Clearly, the College Board takes itself very seriously. It seems to think that the success of America – and indeed the world – is dependent on what the College Board does. There were soaring pronouncements of how their new test and policies will lead to more minority students applying to more selective colleges and thereby able to go on to more successful lives. Specifically, the College Board is going to be focused on supporting worthy African Americans, “Hispanics,” and Native Americans in a most avuncular way. (Sorry, I didn’t mean to use what the College Board now calls an “SAT word,” one which their spokesman said isn’t likely to be encountered in the real world. Forget you heard me use “avuncular.” I didn’t mean to be supercilious. Oops, I’ve done it again!) The spokesperson implied we already have quite a few Asians (and we all know that all Asians are alike, don’t we?) who take AP classes and apply to selective schools, but what about the other minorities? They will be given college application waivers and will be encouraged to take AP classes in high school and will be given counseling to make sure they apply to more selective colleges. (Sadly, the College Board spokesman didn’t address the dismal rate of non-completion of college by these same minorities. It’s good to get them in, but more attention has to be given to why there are such high minority withdrawal and/or failure rates.) Much of the College Board’s initial comments had to do with encouraging more students to take more AP tests. I wonder who designs AP tests, which cost about $90 each to take? Oh, yes – the College Board!
1. SAT tutors like me seem to be at the heart of the problem. David Coleman, head of the College Board, said that my helping students prepare for the SATs isn’t fair. And my charging for my time, effort, and expertise REALLY isn’t fair. So he’s going to help students prepare for the SATs. Khan Academy, which I actually really respect and often recommend to students, will be providing free online videos and sample SAT questions. Of course, he also said the College Board designed the new SAT to be one that will require diligence (oops, another “SAT word”!) and achievement in ongoing class work so that prepping won’t really help, but never mind – they’ll provide free prepping anyway. But it won’t help. But they’re going to give it to you for free. But it won’t help. (Yes, he spent a lot of time on that point.)
2. Writing is crucial to high school and college success – so they’re going to make the essay optional, just like it is on the ACT. (I wonder if colleges will, after 2016, stop requiring the ACT with writing now that it’s optional for both tests. I hope so. A quick, on-the-spot essay is a poor way of judging writing skills no matter what the essay topic is.) The essay, if a student wants to take it, will be scored separately and will NOT be part of the SAT score. The new 50-minute essay will be somewhat like a DBQ (document-based question) in that you’ll be asked to read a persuasive essay and/or a series of graphs and explain the persuasive logic employed. I can’t imagine a lot of kids opting for that essay unless colleges absolutely require it. The ACT essay, on the other hand, asks students to comment on a topic of general interest to average high school students, like “Should public school students wear uniforms?” or “Is it fair for high schools to require community service?”
3. They will be going back to a 1600 score, which was the measure before 2005. Reading and writing (not the essay, just the grammar) will be one combined score out of 800, and math will be the other component, again out of 800. The essay, as I said, won’t be included in that score, just like they do it on the ACTs.
4. The reading will include a wider range of subject matter including social studies and science (with graphs and tables), just like they do on the ACTs. (Are you starting to see a pattern? By the way, the College Board didn’t say they want to be just like the ACTs, but it’s rather obvious. Of course, these changes have nothing to do with the fact that, as of last year, more students take the ACTs than the SATs. Pure coincidence!) In addition, every SAT will include at least one reading from the seminal (sorry, another “SAT word” that you’ll never see in real life) documents of American government and politics, such as the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, or Federalist Papers. (I’m not sure how this jives with Mr. Coleman’s statement that the SAT is a global test, but never mind about that.) Questions will be not only on the content of the reading but will ask students to identify how or why they believe their answer to be correct.
5. As I said before, there will be no more “SAT words” on the SAT. In fact, there will be no more sentence completion questions at all, just like on the ACTs. Instead, they will expect students to know myriad meanings (oops!) for words. The example Mr. Coleman gave was “synthesis.” Synthesis, he said, is a word that all of see all around us every day. Not true for me. Maybe it’s true for you.
6. Grammar will be assessed within the context of editing, just like on the ACTs, but it will no longer be a separate section. I actually like that. This change will prevent students from asking me to tutor the reading only and ignore the grammar, which many colleges don’t care about. I think everyone, including college admissions people, should care about clear, correct grammar, but that’s just my personal prejudice.
7. Math will be more practical and will include sections in which students can use a calculator and sections in which they may not. Actually, that’s another good idea. As I wrote on my Facebook page recently, a startlingly high number of my suburban, college-bound students cannot add three two-digit numbers without a calculator, and that’s just wrong.
8. In an effort to make the math more practical, the SATs will focus on numbers, logic, algebra, and functions. Gosh, who needs geometry? Certainly not engineers or anyone trying to figure out how much wallpaper to buy for her bedroom! Coleman seemed to say geometry will be out completely. (Now you math people can understand my frustration with eliminating vocabulary.)
9. Biggest change: there will no longer be a penalty (point deduction) for wrong guesses, just like the ACTs! Remember, this is only starting in 2016, but I’m sure the 9th graders are relieved.
Why would any student want to take the SAT (after 2016) when the ACT is faster, easier, just as widely accepted, and a known factor, rather than this longer, less familar new SAT? I certainly will be suggesting that my students, at least in the first year or so after the new test is in place, focus on the ACT.
As I take a deeper look into the changes, I might have more to say, but I was eager to get my take on the announcement out to my students, their parents, and local guidance counselors as soon as possible.
I welcome your comments!