Major changes ahead for the SAT

03/05/2014 3:57 PM

03/05/2014 3:58 PM

Saying its college admission exams do not focus enough on the important academic skills, the College Board announced Wednesday a fundamental rethinking of the SAT, eliminating obligatory essays, ending the longstanding penalty for guessing wrong and cutting obscure vocabulary words.

David Coleman, president of the College Board, criticized his own test, the SAT, and its main rival, the ACT, saying that both “have become disconnected from the work of our high schools.”

In addition, Coleman announced new programs to help low-income students, who will now be given fee waivers allowing them to apply to four colleges at no charge. And even before the new exam starts, the College Board, in partnership with Khan Academy, will offer free online practice problems from old tests and instructional videos showing how to solve them.

The changes coming to the exam are extensive: The SAT’s rarefied vocabulary words will be replaced by words that are common in college courses, such as “empirical” and “synthesis.” The math questions, now scattered widely across many topics, will focus more narrowly on linear equations, functions and proportional thinking. The use of a calculator will no longer be allowed on some of the math sections. The new exam will be available on paper and computer, and the scoring will revert to the old 1600 scale, with a top score of 800 on math and what will now be called “Evidence-Based Reading and Writing.” The optional essay will have a separate score.

Once the pre-eminent college admissions exam, the SAT has recently lost ground to the ACT, which is based more directly on high school curriculums and is now taken by a slightly higher number of students.

The new SAT, to be introduced in the spring of 2016, will not quell all criticism of the standardized-test juggernaut. Critics have long pointed out — and Coleman admits - that high school grades are a better predictor of college success than standardized test scores. A growing number of colleges have in recent years gone “test optional,” allowing students to forgo the tests and submit their grades, transcripts and perhaps a graded paper.

For many students, Coleman said, the tests are mysterious and “filled with unproductive anxiety.” Nor, he acknowledged, do they inspire much respect from classroom teachers: Only 20 percent, he said, see the college-admissions tests as a fair measure of the work their students have done in school.

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