This year, the SAT is implementing big changes in their test structure and content. Most notably, the mandatory essay section of the test will now be replaced with a revamped optional writing section, and scores will again be marked out of 1600.
The now defunct mandatory writing section was introduced in 2005 and has drawn a lot of criticism. Test prep tutors and students alike quickly discovered loopholes and methods for gaming the system. Many students were advised to pre-write a generic essay and then make small adjustments to suit the prompt. Les Perelman, a former director of writing at M.I.T., once tutored 16 students on tricks to ace the writing section. To gain a high score, he advised the students to write a long essay, sprinkle in some advanced vocabulary, add lots of details without worrying about factual accuracy, and to cite famous quotes from prominent historical figures regardless of their relevancy to the topic at hand. Fifteen of sixteen in the group scored in the 90% percentile for SAT scores (Balf, New York Times).
In a recent news release, the College Board admitted that the old essay “has not contributed significantly to the overall predictive power of the exam..” The new SAT test has been restructured to assess traits valued by these educational stakeholders. The new test emphasizes reasoned analysis of source documents in the writing portion. The reading/writing portion will test evidence-based reasoning, deriving the meaning of powerful words from contextual clues, and the ability to explain their thought process in selecting an answer. The new test discourages memorization of “SAT words” by instead testing students on words that can change meaning in context and will be commonly encountered in everyday life. The math section will also change, narrowing the focus to multi-step problem solving, algebra, and advanced math.
The new SAT also seeks to minimize the proven correlation between income and test scores in two ways. First, the College Board will be issuing fee waivers to qualified low-income students. Second, they are embarking on an unprecedented partnership with the free online educator, the Khan Academy. The Khan Academy now offers free, guided SAT test prep made available to everyone at no cost. Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, says, “For too long, there’s been a well-known imbalance between students who could afford test-prep courses and those who couldn’t.”
“Like any other truly significant change, there will be debate,” says William Fitzsimmons, the Nacac chairman and head of admissions at Harvard. “Sometimes in the past, there’s been a feeling that tests were measuring some sort of ineffable entity such as intelligence, whatever that might mean. Or ability, whatever that might mean. What this is is a clear message that good hard work is going to pay off and achievement is going to pay off. This is one of the most significant developments that I have seen in the 40-plus years that I’ve been working in admissions in higher education.” (Balf, New York Times)
The coming years will prove if these changes have an effect on low income student accessibility and the score gap. Do you anticipate adjusting your program’s admissions policy in response to the changes in the SAT?