It’s back to the drawing board for the SAT tests, with plans for a dramatic revision to be implemented in the spring of 2016. The changes could reshape how area colleges view, and use, the venerable tests in the admission process.
The College Board, which runs the SAT testing program, outlined proposed changes Wednesday, promising more details on April 16.
The most obvious change will be the merging of the writing test, introduced in 2005 and tepidly embraced by colleges as relevant, with the reading test. That change means the maximum score will drop from 2,400 (800 for each of three tests) back to the 1,600 maximum when only reading and math were administered.
A new essay requirement will be added, but taking it will be optional and scores will be reported separately.
While the College Board touted the changes as making the SAT “more focused and useful than ever before,” the timing of the changes suggests there’s more at play than simple self-improvement.
Last year the competing ACT tests, long more popular in the Midwest than in the East, overtook the SAT as the dominant college prep test nationwide. Only about 2,000 more students took the ACT than did the SAT, but it was the first time since the two tests started dueling about 50 years ago that SAT didn’t come out on top.
“One of the things driving it is the competition,” Misericordia University Director of Admissions Glenn Bozinski said.
“Twenty years ago, maybe five percent of students submitted ACT results,” Bozinski said. “Now it’s maybe a quarter of them.” Overwhelmingly, those who submit ACT results also submit SAT scores, he added.
ACT vs. SAT
ACT has always been more subject specific, with tests in English, math, reading and science. A composite score is calculated, with a maximum of 36 points (there is a conversion formula colleges use to compare ACT scores with SAT scores). ACT also has an optional writing test.
SAT tests have generally been touted as gauging reasoning and critical thinking rather than specific knowledge of a subject, but it’s a claim questioned over the years. Critics have repeatedly pointed out SAT scores correlate tightly with family income, and that a likely culprit is the proliferation of SAT prep courses that wealthier families can afford.
The College Board seemed to tacitly concede the problem exists by announcing that, along with the changes in the test, free test prep will be made available.
In theory, King’s College vice president for enrollment management Corry Unis said, a test that focuses more on high school content would be fairer. A student’s mastery of the test material wouldn’t depend on access to test prep courses.
Bozinski agreed, but said that assumes all high schools are equally effective at teaching the tested subjects.
When the College Board unveiled the proposed changes online Wednesday afternoon it cited “eight key changes.” They are:
• The ability to interpret the meaning of relevant words in context.
• The ability to “interpret, synthesize, and use evidence found in a wide range of sources,” including graphics and multiparagraph text.
• The ability to “read a passage and explain how the author builds an argument,” measured through the essay section.
• The math section will focus on three areas: problem solving/data analysis, algebra and advanced math.
• Both reading and math sections will use questions “grounded in the real world.”
• Students will have to answer questions in science, history and social studies.
• Tests will include the use of “America’s founding documents — such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.”
• No penalty for wrong answers. Unis noted that has been a fundamental philosophical difference between the two tests “SAT penalizes you a quarter point for guessing.” That is, you lose points for wrong answers to discourage students from just filling in bubbles when they run out of time and have too many questions left.
What colleges seek
Unis and Bozinski both reiterated what local college administrators have said for years: Neither the SAT nor the ACT tests are primary factors in admissions. Institutions consider high school records and rigor of courses taken as an important indicator of likely college success.
Unis noted King’s just completed an analysis of data over several years that showed “high school GPA (grade point average) and strength of programs was much more indicative of student performance in the first year of college” than SATs.
Bozinski said Misericordia did find some correlation between SAT scores and a student’s likely success in pursuing degrees that involve getting a license through a standardized test, such as physician’s assistant.
And without knowing the details of the changes, both said SATs can be improved, but the College Board has to strike a balance between its long-stated goal of testing reasoning skills and testing mastery of subject material.
“If it can be more fare or equitable, or if it can help colleges be more predictive of student success, I would applaud it,” Unis said. “I would not want change just for change’s sake.”