The SATs Are Changing. Should You Care?

Standardized tests changes apple and pencil bubble testsBig news in the education world — which you may have glossed over if your kids are young — is the College Board's announcement that it is making sweeping changes to the Student Aptitude Test, or SAT, a gatekeeper for college admission.

If your kids are still in middle, elementary or preschool, it's likely you have plenty of other, more immediate things to worry about.

But the changes in the SAT say a lot about the changing views towards secondary and higher education. Among the questions being grappled with:

  • Are we giving our kids enough rigor to adequately prepare them for college and career?
  •  Are we providing access to opportunity for all students?
  • Are standardized tests an adequate predictor of academic success?

Arguably, younger kids are the ones who will be most impacted, because sweeping change happens infrequently and can have long-lasting effects. The last time the SAT was overhauled was in 2005. So before you channel Gone With the Wind's Scarlett O'Hara and decide to think about this tomorrow, here are some things to think about today:

What is the College Board?

The College Board is a nonprofit membership organization comprised of 6,000 educational institutions. Founded in 1900, it was created to expand access to higher education. The Board created the first college entrance exam in 1901. In addition to administering the SAT, the College Board is also the brains behind the Advanced Placement courses and exams.

What is the difference between the SAT and the ACT?

 The ACT (the name of both the governing nonprofit organization and the test) was founded in 1959, and the test quickly followed.

The ACT is an achievement test, measur­ing knowledge in English, math, reading and science, with an optional writing component. The SAT measures aptitude in critical reasoning, math and writing. The essay section has been a required portion of the test, but will become optional when the changes take effect.

In addition to measuring achievement versus aptitude, the tests have differed based on regional popularity. In general, the SAT has been more popular on the East and West Coasts, while the ACT dominates in the Midwest. These distinctions are changing, however. Because of the different formats, some students opt to take both tests and submit the scores on the test they do best on to colleges.

If it ain't broke ...

In recent years, the ACT has eclipsed the SAT in popularity (some say this is a reason for the SAT overhaul), though both tests have seen increased participation. A broader range of students took the ACT in 2013. The College Board reports the largest percentage of minority student participation in the SAT in 2013.  

Both organizations report flat or declining scores in recent years.

In 2013, composite ACT scores dropped to their lowest point in eight years. One-third of students who took the test did not meet any benchmarks; 57% of 2013 test-takers did not meet SAT benchmarks.

In its 2013 SAT executive summary, the College Board issued a call to action: "Fewer than half of all SAT-takers in the class of 2013 graduated from high school academically prepared for the rigors of college-level coursework. This number has remained virtually unchanged during the last five years, underscoring a need to dramatically increase the number of students in K–12 who acquire the skills and knowledge that research demonstrates are critical to college readiness."


The SAT redesign, which will debut in spring 2016, features these key changes:

  • "Relevant," rather than arcane vocabulary words
  • "Evidence-based" reading and writing
  • Optional analytical essay (the mandatory essay became part of the test in 2005)
  • Less math, and calculators only permitted in certain sections
  • No penalty for wrong answers
  • Scoring will return to a 1600 point scale (in 2005, the point scale was increased to 2400)
  • The test will be offered digitally (digital ACT debuts in 2015)

Alignment with the Common Core 

Students will be asked to analyze texts and data in real-world contexts, similar to what is expected under the Common Core State Standards.

David Coleman, who became president of the College Board in 2012, is one of the architects of the Common Core standards, which have been adopted by most U.S. states, but are increasingly coming under fire.

Proponents of the changes say aligning the SAT to high school curriculum makes it a more relevant predictor of academic success and provides the shared goal of increasing academic rigor. Critics say the SAT tie-in to Common Core is akin to forcing a national K–12 curriculum.

But less math, optional essay, easier vocabulary words, no penalty for wrong answers? These changes leave a lingering concern that the test is being dumbed down.

The end of the test preparation industry?

In The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT, single mom Debbie Stier describes taking the SAT seven times in one year to help motivate her son.

SAT test preparation is a booming business. Critics say the test favors those with the financial means and the time to bone up and master successful test-taking strategies.

But, as part of the impending changes, the College Board announced it is teaming up with Khan Academy to offer free, online SAT test preparation to level the playing field and enable all students to prepare for the test at their own pace.

This partnership is seen as a victory for equity in education.

A test is just a test

High stakes tests, such as the SAT, have come under fire in recent years, and it's fair to say that if you have little kids, the testing landscape will likely look very different for them than it does today.

Many believe that kids are more than the sum of their parts and that tests like the SAT create a lot of anxiety, when other indicators, such as grades, will do just fine. Others say that strong scores on college access tests give kids with lackadaisical (an SAT vocabulary word that might fall by the wayside) grades a much-needed edge.

"The SAT is a mind-numbing, stress-inducing ritual of torture," wrote college English professor Jennifer Finney Boylan in a recent New York Times editorial. "No single exam, given on a single day, should determine anyone's fate." 

 As a parent of a student of the class of 2017, the first cohort to take the new SAT, I'm heartened that college affordability, equity in education and academic rigor are all topics receiving serious consideration. I hope that the frenzy for kids to pad their resumes with achievements and volunteer hours is next on the list of reforms.

Still, I mourn for innocent days gone bye, when my kids were still in elementary school and we could all think about college "tomorrow."

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