The SAT will get a major overhaul in 2016

High schoolers and their aspirational parents have long sweated over that vaunted test of college mettle — the SAT.

But in reality, the influence of the SAT, formerly known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, has been on the wane for years. Hundreds of colleges no longer require it for admissions decisions and the competing ACT exam has become the favored choice of today’s students.

So SAT test-makers have gone back to the blackboard. On Wednesday, the College Board, the non-profit that produces it, announced a “redesigned” exam that will start in 2016.

Among the changes: an essay section, added in 2005, will now become optional; SAT scoring will return to a 1,600-point scale; and vocabulary questions will shift away from obscure words in favor of “words that are widely used in college and career.”

At Florida International University, admissions staff watched the announcement closely. Luisa Havens, FIU’s vice president for enrollment, said she was pleased to see that, among the less-noticed changes, the new SAT rules will make it easier for low-income students to apply to college. Poor students who take the revised exam will automatically receive application fee waivers that can be used to apply to up to four colleges.

Havens also praised the SAT’s new “safe use warning,” which stresses that the exam should only be used in combination with other factors — and should never be the sole measuring stick to evaluate a prospective student.

“I had to chuckle,” Havens said of the SAT’s own creators now cautioning against overuse. “It has been something that we in higher education have been saying for a long, long time.”

Studies have shows it is high school grades, and not tests like the SAT, that are the best predictors of a student’s future success in college.

The SAT’s redesign comes at a time when more than 800 four-year colleges have become “test optional” — meaning they do not require SAT or ACT scores for a substantial number of applicants.

A key criticism of standardized tests, including the tests that Florida uses in grades K-12: scores are strongly correlated to socioeconomic status. Students from higher-income families consistently score better — in part, perhaps, because of their access to expensive tutoring services. Students from affluent households also frequently grow up with more books in the home.

In the realm of college admissions, the College Board’s own internal research reveals a large income gap in SAT results. A 2009 report found the average reading score for the poorest students (less than $20,000 family income) was 434. For students from households making more than $200,000, the average reading score was 563.

A similar gap — more than 100 points — separated rich and poor in math SAT scores.

The new SAT has a whole host of changes — some of which might make it easier, and others that might make it more difficult. The number of math topics tested will be reduced, but a calculator will now be off-limits for portions of the test. Although the essay portion is now optional, students who complete it may find the grading scale to be more demanding, as it now expects students to “analyze evidence” in addition to the previous expectation of writing coherently.

The College Board held a formal unveiling ceremony Wednesday in Austin, Texas to announce the changes to a test taken by some 1.6 million students annually. At that event, College Board President David Coleman directly confronted the issue of fairness, and said his not-for-profit organization must “take responsibility” for a test-prep industry that sometimes intimidates parents into paying for coaching sessions.

“It is time for the College Board to say in a clear 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 said, according to a transcript of his remarks.

Under the new-and-improved SAT, the College Board will partner with the online Khan Academy to provide free SAT test preparation. Coleman said a shift in the test’s philosophy will also benefit students, as the SAT will now focus more on the kind of work that students do in high school — making flash cards with obscure words no longer necessary.

“It is time for an admissions assessment that makes it clear that the road to success is not last-minute tricks or cramming, but the challenging learning students do every day,” Coleman said.