SAT makers announce latest ‘new’ SAT, insult rival ACT in desperate bid to stay relevant

Eric Owens | Editor

For decades, the creators of the SAT swore that their test measured immutable intelligence and could not be coached. A lot of people still believe these claims—which is hilarious since the SAT has changed relentlessly since its inception in 1926, and since annual revenue in the SAT prep industry is easily in the hundreds of millions.

On Wednesday, the College Board announced that the three-hour rite of passage will undergo yet another massive overhaul, which hasn’t happened since early in George W. Bush’s second term. (RELATED: A nostalgic trip down memory lane with the SAT [SLIDESHOW])

The College Board’s stated rationale for this change is that all college admission exams have failed to focus sufficiently on the real, meaty academic skills that students are supposed to learn in high school, reports The New York Times.

For the unveiling of the new SAT, David Coleman, the president of the College Board, proclaimed that both his company’s test and main rival ACT have “become disconnected from the work of our high schools.”

The makers of the ACT, who have tinkered with their test much less over the years, got fairly snippy about this criticism.

“David Coleman is not a spokesman for the ACT, and I acknowledge his political gamesmanship but I don’t appreciate it,” Jon Erickson, president of ACT’s education division, told The Times. “It seems like they’re mostly following what we’ve always done.”

Coleman began his College Board career in 2012. His SAT overhaul is largely a response to the fact that the once behemoth standardized test has been losing market share to the upstart ACT for years. In 2013, 1.8 million students took the ACT while only 1.7 million took the SAT.

Previously, Coleman had been among the chief architects of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, an attempt to create a standardized national K-12 math and language curriculum—but don’t call it a curriculum! As of now, 46 states have begun implementing part or all of Common Core.

Coleman’s new SAT will usher in a bevy of changes when it debuts in the spring of 2016.

For starters, just like the ACT, there won’t be a guessing penalty. (More accurately, since the penalty was for incorrect answers, there will no longer be a wrong-answer penalty).

The essay will become optional. It was added in 2005 and nobody – especially college admissions staffers – ever cared about it. (Also, it will now involve analyzing a text.)

The scoring system for the mandatory parts of the new SAT will revert to the 1,600-point scale. The score range will be 200 to 800 points in each of two sections: math and verbal “evidence-based reading and writing.”

The SAT will still use vocabulary testing as a proxy for deciding if students are ready for college. However, the range of words will change. Instead of esoteric and grandiloquent words like, say, “esoteric” and “grandiloquent,” the new test will feature words frequently bandied about in college like, say, “synthesis”—and probably “proletariat.”

The math sections will focus heavily on higher-level algebra and ratios and proportions. Calculators won’t be allowed on some math sections.

The reading sections will include at least one passage from a founding document in American history (like the Declaration of Independence) or some other text everyone agrees is really important (like “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr.).

Additionally, the College Board will now promise to give low-income students fee waivers for transmitting SAT scores to up to four colleges. It’s not clear how “low-income” will be defined or how the SAT makers will determine any family’s income.

Finally, the College Board plans to partner with Khan Academy to offer free online test prep and instructional videos for its newest SAT.  

“It is time for the College Board to say in a clearer voice that the culture and practice of costly test preparation that has arisen around admissions exams drives the perception of inequality and injustice in our country,” Coleman lectured on Wednesday, according to the Times. “It may not be our fault, but it is our problem.”

Coleman said the new SAT will attempt to avoid questions that can be solved with test-taking tricks. Also, test makers will sometimes ask students to justify their answers by choosing quotations from a text.

It’s not clear what students who don’t naturally excel at these problems should do if they wish to get better. Also, if “test-taking tricks” don’t work, it is similarly unclear how Khan Academy will be able to help these students with free online test prep and instructional videos.

Incidentally, as recently as 2012, the College Board published a book called “The Official SAT Study Guide with DVD.” You can buy this paperback product at Amazon.com for the low, low price of $18.07.

The National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) has criticized the latest round of SAT revisions.

“The revised test is unlikely to be better than the current one,” Bob Schaeffer of FairTest told The Daily Caller. “It will not predict college success more accurately, assess low-income students more fairly, or be less susceptible to high-priced commercial coaching courses.”

Schaeffer noted that the College Board and the makers of the ACT are fighting against a larger trend: colleges are dropping standardized testing requirements. Since the 2005 introduction of the last “new” SAT, nearly 100 additional colleges and universities dropped admissions exam requirements.

Schaeffer is also skeptical about the free test prep.

“The partnership with the Khan Academy is unlikely to make a dent in the huge market for high-priced, personalized SAT workshops and tutoring that only well-to-do families can afford,” he predicted. “Like most of the other College Board initiatives announced today, this move is less significant than its promoters claim.”

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