R. I. P. Old SAT


Tomorrow, January 23, we say goodbye to the old SAT as it is given for the last time. I will miss:

  • Math that emphasizes creative problem solving over long computation
  • The overt (and easily coach-able) emphasis on college-bound vocabulary
  • Short sections that never ask students to focus for more than 25 minutes on a given subject
  • Broad essay topics which allow multiple interpretations supported by any type of evidence

Going forward with the new SAT I think students will appreciate

  • The scoring system which no longer penalizes for wrong answers
  • A multiple-choice writing section based 100% on editing passages (like the ACT). Students won’t miss the Error ID sentences.
  • Changes to the written essay that move it to the end of the exam, remove it from the overall SAT score, and make it optional (like the ACT). Essay scores will now be “extra” and will not be factored into a student’s Evidence Based Reading & Writing score (again, like the ACT.)

The new SAT looks more like the ACT than its outgoing counterpart. Having two competing exams that share an increasing number of similarities is not good for students, many of whom benefited from having a real choice in admissions tests.

As the new format SAT moves from prototype to full implementation phase this spring, we will see how many students prefer it to the ACT and life will be simpler with two known choices and less speculation.

I guess it is time to recycle my old SAT books. I’ve had the new format book since it was released by College Board last summer, but it doesn’t have the same familiar dog-eared pages and worn cover held on by layers of packing tape.


Will A New SAT Benefit Students?

Will A New SAT Benefit Students

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.

My Predictions

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.

, ,

Answering Your College Admissions Questions

Today I’m answering your college admissions questions.  I’d also like to encourage you to ask questions on my Facebook page or via email.  Starting in January I’m moving to a new once a week email newsletter format and I will be answering one question a week in additional to a full length article.  I’d love to hear from you.


What are the strongest ballet departments?

The answer to this question depends on your goals.  Ballet dancers, especially women, have a fairly short window of time to move from training into a company which is why many serious dancers actually delay college and train in a professional company like School of American Ballet (SAB), Joffrey, or Royal Academy of Dance (RAD).  Following this type of performance training program isn’t exactly a well-rounded education, but there will always be time for that later.  Some students want college programs in a conservatory setting.  Schools such as Juilliard or Boston Conservatory are well recognized, but the curriculum will include a lot of modern dance in addition to ballet.  Finally, you may want a more well-rounded education found in a liberal arts college or traditional university setting.  You will find many well regarded programs; your goal is to match the program to your goals and ability.


Are there things a student should never say during a college interview?

Whether interviewing with a university’s employee or an alumni, remember that they love their school!  Nothing sinks an interview faster than a lack of interest. “I’m applying here as a backup” or “because my dad made me” indicates you are unlikely to attend, even if admitted. Lack of interest also shows if you ask questions that easily would have been answered by looking at the school’s website before your interview. Finally, “Do I really need to study?” and “Yeah, I’ve got an easy senior schedule,” are comments that speak volumes about your lack of interest in higher education overall.


How can a student figure out which standardized tests to take, when, and how many times?

At a minimum, juniors should take the ACT and SAT once, but many students re-test multiple times to achieve their personal best scores. If you want to re-test, focus on whichever standardized test best highlights your academic strengths. You can retake both the SAT and ACT senior year, but pay attention to application deadlines—some fall test dates may be too late. Students applying to highly selective schools also may be required to take SAT Subject Tests, and international students may need additional tests such as the TOEFL. Specific details on which tests you need and when you need to complete them will depend on where you choose to apply.  Check with each college and university to make sure you satisfy all testing requirements.


How can parents help students with the college search and application process?

Parents should emphasize academic achievement and extracurricular involvement starting when their children are in elementary school. Offering encouragement and guidance throughout the school years will help ensure students take challenging classes, earn the best grades possible, seek out extra help in academic problem areas, and participate in meaningful extracurriculars. From freshman year on, parents can encourage students to explore colleges, make college visits, and compare top choices. When the real application process starts, though, it’s important that parents step back, offer advice and encouragement but allow the student to do the work.


Send me your questions.  I’m happy to help.  

If you don’t receive my weekly email newsletter, you can sign up to receive it here.