High School 2 College

December 17, 2013

Major Changes Coming to SAT – and Why Middle School Students Need to Know

Major changes are coming to the SATs and ACTs.  They were supposed to be implemented in time to affect today’s high school sophomores, but the College Board just announced that they changes will be delayed by a year. What will those changes be?  Well, no one knows for sure, but there have been some hints.

Changes to the ACT:

While the press has hinted at changes to the content of the ACTs, the only change that the ACT organization will confirm is that they will offer a computer version in addition to the paper-and-pencil version of the test that students now take.  Students in some (but not all) states will have the option beginning at some time during 2015 to take the ACT test at a computer testing location and leave with their scores in hand as is done for the GRE graduate school exam.  While that sounds like an attractive feature, most students I’ve spoken to are justifiably leery of a computer-based test.  (Interestingly, most adults think it’s a swell idea but most kids, who are more familiar with computers, don’t.) What if the computer freezes?  How difficult will it be to go back and review your work?  Is it easier to hit a wrong letter than it is to circle a wrong answer in the booklet and then bubble the wrong letter on a scantron sheet?  At least for the first year or two, I concur with those students who tell me that they’ll take the paper-and-pencil version until the computer version is well tested.

Changes to the SAT:

The College Board has been hinting at major changes to the current SAT exam format, changes that would, according to their latest communications, impact current 9th graders.  Why the changes?  For the first time last year, more students took the ACT than the SAT.  (I recommend ALL high school juniors take at least one SAT and one ACT before determining which is their stronger test.)  Clearly, that fact has the College Board shaken.  And the scores of those who have taken the SATs this past year have been disappointing nationwide.  Several years ago, when the average SAT scores declined several years in a row, instead of insisting that we examine our education system, the College Board merely “re-centered” the scores so students had to get fewer correct to achieve the same score.  Just like the can of tuna that used to have 7 ounces, then 6.5, then 6 ounces, and now 5.5, a student can get several critical reading questions wrong and still get an 800 which used to indicate a perfect score.

The new SAT essay, added to the test in March 2005, has been roundly ignored by college admissions people, who find length of essay a poor criterion for grading anything. David Coleman, president of the College Board, has said that the written essay will be moving more toward content-based questions on the essay (right now, you can make up whatever you like as long as the essay itself and your sentences are long).  The SAT essay, then, might become more like a social studies DBQ (document-based question).

Some pundits have examined a statement by the head of the College Board that some of the more esoteric “SAT Vocab” words will be removed and easier words that are more commonly used emphasized.  Since students’ vocabularies have worsened over the past many years, instead of encouraging students to learn more, they’re going to make the test easier.  Others have discussed the possibility that the SATs will focus on words with multiple meanings.  In an article in The Atlantic, James S. Murphy quotes a College Board official as saying, “Vocabulary in the new SAT will focus on multiple meaning words and phrases that ask examinees to determine their meaning based on the context in which they are used.   Testing to see if the examinee knows the one and only one meaning of a word will no longer be tested in the new SAT.  Rather, we will be testing students’ understanding of the meaning of words in context.”  I wonder if they are considering eliminating the sentence-completion questions entirely.

If the College Board begins to concentrate on these words, lists of so-called “SAT vocabulary” won’t help much.  If multiple-meaning words become more important, a student won’t need to know what “somnolent” means, but will need to know that “discriminate” doesn’t always mean to act in a biased manner.  (It means to be able to discern fine differences between similar things, like having a palate so discriminating that you can tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi.)  For those who follow my Facebook page or who are on my email list, I’ll be compiling a list of some of these words that have been used by the SATs in the past few years.

But the best way, actually the only way, to prepare for the new SAT vocabulary strategy, is to read.  Students should be reading daily!  (Yes, even on weekends and on vacations.)  Students should be reading in addition to anything assigned by the school.  Students should be reading magazine articles.  Students should be reading essays and speeches.  (Try 50 Essays if you want a student-friendly anthology.) Students should be reading biographies, novels, short stories.  (Check out these collections  or this one or this one by one of my favorite funny authors – all available on Amazon.com.) Students should be reading things that are slightly harder than they think is comfortable.  In short, students should read.  Always have a magazine in the bathroom, a hardcover by your bed, a paperback in your backpack, and a Kindle in your pocketbook.  And parents should model this reading behavior by reading when and where their students can see them, and by discussing what they are reading.  (Nothing makes someone want to read like an enthusiastic review.)

Predictions are that the gap will widen between high- and low-scoring students, at least on the critical reading section.  And the single determining factor, the greatest predicter of whether your student will score low or high, will be his long-term, ongoing reading habits.

While current freshmen will be affected, all this reading needs to start in middle school, just when most students lose interest in reading.  I blame the sorts of books assigned by middle school teachers.  In my town, nearly every book students have to read centers around abuse or death.  My kids had to read books on killing young people, killing soldiers, killing birds, child abuse, and sexual abuse.  They read all about all sorts of heinous behavior as middle school students to the exclusion of anything else.  If it weren’t for me, my sons would have thought that all reading is disheartening.  I understand that teachers must think kids can relate better to reality, but I disagree.  Most kids I know who love to read, love to read fantasy or science fiction.  So why not assign some books that take kids out of their own worlds into another, be it real or imaginary or historic or foreign?  If the school won’t assign books like that, parents, please be your student’s reading coach and encourage him or her to read something engaging.

Students, if you believe that attending a competitive college might lead to a successful future, you need to prepare to get into a competitive college by getting good grades and good scores.  And you need to prepare to get good grades and good scores by reading – starting right now!

(Don’t hesitate to look up any words in this blog post that you don’t know!  And if you need book suggestions, I would be only too happy to help.)

Wendy Segal



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