Yesterday Inside Higher Ed announced College Board’s plans to update the SAT making it better reflect the work students will do in college:
“An improved SAT will strongly focus on the core knowledge and skills that evidence shows are most important to prepare students for the rigors of college and career. This is an ambitious endeavor…”
It is somewhat ironic that this announcement comes less than eight years after the major overhaul of the SAT in early 2005 when the writing section was added and analogies and quantitative comparison questions were dropped. At that time, we were told the new format would better assess “skills needed in college” with an emphasis on written communication to be evaluated by through the written essay.
There’s a lot of speculation about the recent news. Maybe these changes are in response to the growing popularity of the ACT. I live in a traditionally “SAT state” and I’m seeing more and more students turn to the ACT as an option. Perhaps continued criticism of high stakes testing from parents and educators has had an impact. Maybe the SAT is finally responding to a world in which more colleges and universities are questioning how standardized test should be used in admission.
While the causes and history are interesting, I want to focus on those who will feel the impact – students.
How Will the New SAT Benefit Students?
College Board’s announcement won’t bring any immediate benefits to students. All benefits will seen in the slow evolution of the admissions testing process.
Greater Scrutiny on Admissions Tests
Any change to the SAT will necessitate further examination and discussion of the purpose, role, and effect of standardized tests for college admission. The SAT was developed as a tool to help level the playing field for college-bound students who did not have the luxury of attending prestigious prep schools. Today, debates continue to point out potential biases and flaws in standardized testing. A reevaluation of the SAT may not lead to an overhaul of the admissions testing industry, but it will further conversations on the role of these exams. Change may be slow, but these discussions will benefit students long term.
Reevaluation of Content
When my grandfather took the SAT in the 1940’s, he had to translate statements from Latin to English. Clearly we’ve determined that is no longer a necessary skill to earn a college degree. What skills do students need in college? How can we assess them? Will a new test have any reliability or validity in assessing what it claims?
I’ve helped students prepare for the SAT for two decades. I’ve seen the SAT change. I know the SAT is an imperfect tool. I’ve had bright, hard-working students who struggle to earn an average score – far below their ability or potential. But overall, I can say that tests like the SAT and ACT have some use.
The student with an SAT Reading score of 400 will perform differently in the classroom than the student with a 700. Yes, test taking savvy may play some role, but the student with the 700 will have a stronger vocabulary and better reading comprehension than her low scoring peer. The challenge is to develop a test that can consistently assess student abilities in key areas.
Not Much Will Change
This story will blaze through the testing and admissions crowd then fizzle out. College Board is not going to kill the goose that lays golden eggs. The SAT is not going away. We will just see the new model and most of us won’t be able to tell the difference from one version to the next.
When the SAT introduced the Writing section in 2005, it took colleges a couple years to gather data before they began using scores for admission. The College Board has to be careful to remain consistent enough that universities can still rely on scores to be standardized.
The Process Will Be Slow
No one should get excited and think they will finally be released from the torture that is the SAT. These changes will take time. My daughter is in sixth grade; it is possible she may see a new version of the SAT. But for those of us who were around before the changes of 2005, we remember how long the process was as new questions were tested, discussed, and the changes were finally introduced to the public.
Changes May Not Be What Students Want
I start my SAT classes by explaining that the SAT (and ACT) are graded on the traditional bell curve with few students scoring at the top or bottom. I joke that if everyone could earn a high score on the SAT, how would Harvard know who to let in? If students expect a kinder, gentler SAT, they may be disappointed. In order to serve its purpose in college admissions, the SAT will have to continue to generate results that fit the bell curve. No matter what types of questions College Board decides to add, students should expect a balance of easy, medium, and hard problems.
College Board’s desire to create a new SAT is an interesting development. Hopefully it will spark further discussion on what skills students need in college and how tests like the SAT and ACT can effectively assess those skills. But for now, students will find it is business as usual for the SAT and its role in college admission.