Changes to the SAT

In announcement made in early 2013, The College Board says it is planning to redesign its SAT. Similar to many processes involving higher education, this one is not expected to be swift nor have the nature and extent of the changes been determined yet.

Addressing the changes, David Coleman, the The College Board’s new president, sent a letter to members, saying: “We will develop an assessment that mirrors the work that students will do in college so that they will practice the work they need to do to complete 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, and one that will only succeed with the leadership of our Board of Trustees, the strong coordination of our councils and committees, and the full engagement of our membership.”

Coleman has previously spearheaded efforts to develop the universal state standards, to which he referred in his letter. He both praised the SAT and said that it could be better.

“First administered in 1926, the SAT was created to democratize access to higher education for all students. Today the SAT serves as both a measure of students’ college and career readiness and a predictor of college outcomes.”

The last revamp of the SAT occurred in 2005 when it added a writing portion to the exam and tossed out the analogy questions, which had been a thorn in the side of many a prospective student. While not yet clear on specifics, the next set of changes will be geared to assist both students and schools by ”focusing on a core set of knowledge and skills that are essential to college and career success,” according to Coleman.

Changes to the SAT stand to affect many people. In 2012, for example, 1.66 million students took the exam; in addition a sizable industry has sprung up around prepping for the SAT and the average scores of colleges’ acceptees are used by many high school students who are trying to figure out if they have a shot at getting into a particular school.

The years since the 2005 overhaul have seen their share of SAT debates. In 2008, the National Association for College Admission Counseling released a report suggesting that colleges should consider more carefully whether they really need standardized testing as part of the admissions process. While the report did not rule out the potential value of standardized testing in admissions, it suggested that many colleges really weren’t gaining much from the requirement.

In the years since (as was taking place before), more colleges have dropped testing requirements — sometimes entirely or sometimes for students with certain high school grade-point averages or who submit other materials. Almost without exception, the colleges that drop the test requirement report that most applicants still submit scores, but that those who don’t tend to succeed at the same levels as those who provide scores. Further, many colleges report more minority applicants or more applicants over all following a decision to go test-optional.

According to Inside Higher Ed, “Several observers saw the College Board’s announcement as a reflection of its increased competition with the ACT. Last year was the first in which more people took the ACT than the SAT. The margin was only about 2,000, but it reflected a significant change from the years of SAT dominance. The SAT and ACT maintain regions of strength, with the former strong in New England and the latter strong in the Midwest, for example. But the ACT is now seen as an option in all regions, and high school students in areas in which the SAT was once seen as the only choice now talk about the pros and cons of the two tests (or take both).”

The Inside Higher Ed article that a spokesman for the ACT offered this statement: “As a policy, we don’t comment on other assessment products in the industry. You may find it interesting, however, to know that ACT was founded 54 years ago because ETS and the College Board rejected E.F. Lindquist’s proposal to change the SAT from an aptitude test to an achievement test. Dr. Lindquist, along with co-founder Ted McCarrell, subsequently decided to develop his own achievement test, which became the ACT in 1959. Dr. Lindquist’s idea was that measuring what students have learned through their hard work would be just as effective as measuring their innate ability in predicting college success yet also offer other valuable information that schools and students could use to improve learning. We’ve been following that guiding principle since then, and we will continue to follow it into the future.”

Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, and a longtime critic of the College Board, told Inside Higher Ed that he viewed the move “as an admission that the previous attempt to create a ‘new Coke’ was rejected by the marketplace, so it became necessary to ‘reformulate’ the product once again in order to remain competitive with the ACT.”

Shaan Patel, director of SAT programs for Veritas Prep (a test-prep service) also told Inside Higher Ed that there is risk for the College Board in changing the SAT relatively soon after the last overhaul. “Completely revamping the SAT in less than 10 years from its last makeover may be off-putting to the biggest stakeholders involved — the students,” he said. “Students would rather prepare for a test that has been consistent for many years, rather than prepare for a brand new game. The College Board could be shooting itself in the foot by revamping the SAT again, which would likely result in even more students choosing to take the ACT exam.”

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