New SAT Changes: Nothing to Get Excited About

Marketing the New SAT Yesterday College Board announced major changes to the SAT that will take effect in early 2016. While the College Board’s announcement sounds like a positive change to benefit students, I’m not impressed.  Changes to the SAT have more to do with money than student learning.

A Little History: 2005 Changes to the SAT

In March 2005 the SAT underwent major changes including the addition of the writing section with a timed essay, removal of the analogy and quantitative comparison questions, and a new focus on the skills necessary for college success.  This new 2400-point SAT was promoted as a test that better focused on skills students learned in school and eliminated the need for costly test prep courses.  (Sounds a lot like yesterday’s announcement.)

Follow the Money:  Competition in Admissions Testing

When the SAT added the written essay in 2005, the ACT followed suit, not wanting to be outdone by the competition.  For decades the SAT dominated the admissions testing market. But the ACT has outsold the SAT in the past two years. In that same time the ACT has been praised for being more like school and multiple states have started using the ACT as their exit level assessment. Currently the ACT is in a position to become the preeminent test for college admission. Let’s not forget both the College Board (SAT) and ACT are in business.  Among other things, they sell popular products most high school students will need to purchase if they want to go to college.  Start doing the math in your head.  Most students will take the SAT two or three times. Multiply that by the $51 registration fee and consider how many students nationwide (even internationally take the SAT) and you can see why the College Board doesn’t want to lose its cash cow. I’m not blinded by all the talk about student achievement, learning, and success.  I hear the College Board’s announcement and I see dollar signs.  The SAT is losing market share, so they decide to reformulate the product.  For years I’ve described the SAT and ACT as the Coke and Pepsi of admissions testing.  Almost feels like we are back in the cola wars of the 1980s and we are about to get New Coke. The College Board isn’t making changes to the SAT to help our kids get into college.  They are making changes to sell more tests.

Impact on Students:  Is The New SAT Better?

Will the new SAT be easier?  No.  It will be different.  Some things may seem easier, but I don’t know too many high school students excited at the thought of taking portions of the SAT math without a calculator.  I’m also not sure students will relish the idea of analyzing historical texts. Will it be easier to earn top scores?  NO! I promise this will not be a benefit of the new SAT. No one likes to talk about this, but neither the SAT nor the ACT are structured for students to earn top scores.  In fact, both are written in such a way that very few students will have high scores.  Think about it.  If everyone had high scores how would colleges be able to effectively sort students?  Who would Harvard know to let in? Will the new SAT be more connected to high school curriculum?  Possibly, but on paper the current SAT is well aligned too.  Maybe it helps to eliminate the guessing penalty, but have you taken an SAT or ACT lately?  The questions cover content taught in school, but I don’t think anyone would claim the tests are a good reflection of the curriculum. Will this be the end of SAT vocabulary?  No.  It may help to phase our archaic vocabulary words, but a lot of words currently used on the SAT are not as obscure as people think.  Students will still need to read challenging passages, understand college-bound vocabulary, and analyze the written word. Will the new test be the end of SAT prep classes?  No. I understand College Board’s concern for equity; we don’t want low-income students to face any more barriers than they already do in pursuing a college education.  But changing the SAT will not lessen the economic gap in higher ed. The 2005 changes to the SAT were meant to end the need for test prep (and obscure vocabulary, etc.), but little changed.  I have successfully helped students raise their scores on both the old SAT, the current SAT, and the ACT.  I don’t think the new SAT will be much different. Quality test prep isn’t about tricks and tips.  It covers content review, application of knowledge, familiarity with the test, confidence, focus, and strategies for maximizing results under time pressure. None of that will change.


Thank you to everyone who has asked me about the new test in the past 24 hours.  It is a big announcement, but I don’t think the results will live up to the hype. I’m not new to the field of test prep.  I’ve heard these claims before.  I’ve worked through the massive overhaul of 2005 and I’m filing this one under “same song, different verse.” I’m not taking this as a sign that the SAT (or ACT or entire test prep industry) is on the way out.  While you will hear more from Fair Test advocates in the days and months to come, the reality is that most colleges and universities are not getting rid of admissions testing.  They can’t afford to. Maybe I’m cynical, but I’m not impressed by College Board’s rhetoric.  I think the entire situation boils down to economics.  The SAT has to change to keep pace with its biggest competitor.  This isn’t a win for students or families.  This isn’t a change for the betterment of our educational process or student success.  The 2016 SAT will garner a lot of attention, but won’t revolutionize the college admissions process.  ]]>


  • Great article, Megan. I couldn’t agree with you more that it is exactly like the Coke and Pepsi wars. The new SAT is not designed to be a better test for students, but merely a function of the College Board wanting to make more money and compete with the rising popularity of the ACT. Sad commentary.

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