High school students intending to take the newly redesigned SAT exam on March 5, 2016, are facing an unknown exam, which their future depends on. Although much has been discussed and published about the College Board’s changes to the exam most focuses on what is wrong with the redesign and what students have to fear as they take the exam for the first time. The College Board has hyped the exam as better aligned with high school curriculum and the knowledge students need to succeed in college. Educators are worried about the text emphasis, and that students could face the most problems with it in the exam. Is there really anything to worry about? The following article outlines the major changes to the exam.
The College Board is promising that the new exam “is more focused on the skills and knowledge at the heart of education.” They claim it emphasizes “What you learn in high school and what you need to succeed in college.” The Board is advising students that they only have to continue with the “same habits and choices that lead to success in school will help [them] get ready for the SAT.” Part of the study regimen they are advising is “Take challenging courses. Do your homework. Prepare for tests and quizzes. Ask and answer lots of questions.” It sounds too much like a PR pitch aimed to make the SAT more attractive to high school junior and seniors than the ACT Exam. Educators, however, are advising the exam might even be more difficult than the old version.
Here is a comparison between the two versions of the SAT the old and new one.
The exam components have changed. In the old exam, there were Critical Reading, Writing, Mathematics, and the Essay. Now there are three parts, one being optional, Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, which includes, the Reading and Writing and Language Tests, Math, and the Optional Essay.
Testing time has technically decreased from 3 hours 45 it is now 3 hours. If you do the optional essay, it is 50 minutes more, making the exam time essentially 5 minutes longer. The time allotted and number of questions for each section even differs. Critical Reading used to be 70 minutes and 67 questions, now it is 65 minutes and 52 minutes. The Writing section used to be 60 minutes and 49 questions, now the Writing and Language section is 35 minutes and 44 questions. The Math section used to be 70 minutes and 54 questions while now Math is longer 80 minutes and consists of 58 questions.
The old exam featured a 25-minute optional essay, where “students took a position on a presented issue.” Although now the essay is optional, it is more difficult. The board gives 50 minutes for the essay where “reading, analysis, and writing skills” are tested. Students are required to “produce a written analysis of a provided source text.” The texts used for Reading and Writing sections are usually well known and important excerpts primarily relating to science, history, and literature.
No longer does the exam emphasize “general reasoning skills” or obscure vocabulary. The new exam emphasizes “knowledge, skills, and understandings” that students will use in college and their careers afterward. Now vocabulary and their meaning are tested “in extended contexts and on how word choice shapes meaning, tone, and impact.” The vocabulary will be more commonly used words that students will, in fact, apply in their college experience.
One of the best changes to the exam is that there are no longer any penalties for giving wrong answers as there was in the old version. Not having penalties allows students the option to guess the answers they are uncertain. For each question, there are only four choices now versus the five choices on the old exam.
The scoring also reverts from the new 2400-point system to the old 1600-point system that was in place before the previous exam took effect. The scale starts at 400 and ends with a perfect 1600 score. The scale for the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing is 200-800 and the same for the Math section. Essays are scored between 2 and 8 for “each dimension,” and are separate from the main score.
One of the major selling points about the new SAT exam is the application of the high school curriculum, and real world scenarios are the most controversial. Educators and exam tutors are concerned the exam can benefit the haves versus the have-nots. Students who have access to the better schools are clearly more prepared for the exam than those who do not. The heavy text exam also benefits students whose native tongue is English versus those, which English is a second language.
Educators say the exam seems to emphasize longer texts. They find the reading passages “longer and harder” and “more words in math problems.” The exam has the same average of words as previously, 3,250, whereas the old one had an average of 3,300 words. While the math section maintains a 30 percent word average. Educators think the longer reading passage contains more difficult languages than eliminated “short sentence-completion questions, which tested logic and vocabulary.’
Educators and tutors are particularly concerned about the text heavy math section containing more narratives. They believe the revised section can trip a student up before they even get to “apply” any mathematical knowledge or skills. Educators said before second language English speakers could, at least, excel in the math section if not the reading.
The College Board, however, is trying to put everyone’s mind at ease. Cyndie Schmeiser, chief of assessment at College Board, has told the press, according to TIME Money, “Test writers aimed to make questions as straightforward as possible and paid careful attention to keeping the reading load manageable, especially on the math section.” Schmeiser counters the exam favors all students more. She argues that the “Individual reading passages are shorter, students have slightly more time per question on the reading section.”
As for the math section, Schmeiser says there is the “same number of real-world application problems on the math section” as previously. In fact, the math tested will be more straightforward than the strategies centered math tested in the previous exam. Schmeiser told the New York Times, “We are very mindful of the verbal load on this test. We are keeping it down. I think kids are going to find it comfortable and familiar. Everything about the test is publicly available. There are no mysteries.”
Schmeiser concludes, “I think they’re going to feel far more comfortable with this test because it’s going to feel familiar.” Stacy Caldwell, vice president of college readiness assessments at the College Board, commented, “We wanted to just re-harness the energy students are spending preparing for the SAT and line it up with the work they’re doing to prepare for college. Preparing for the SAT should be preparing for success in college.” High school sophomores and juniors have already taken the redesigned PSAT exam, which was the first preview of the new SAT, and according to Schmeiser the feedback has been “extraordinarily positive.”
For years, the SAT has been criticized because wealthier students with access to the best test prep courses do better, leaving the poorer students out in the cold and at a clear disadvantage. The College Board wanted to change that, and the test prep industry’s monopoly and control. Making the exam aligned with the curriculum is meant to level the playing field. As Caldwell notes, “tricks” and “gaming” are no longer necessary when the exam focuses on “content and skills.”
Caldwell told the press, “We all recognize that despite many of the messages we have tried to deliver for decades about not needing to prepare (for the test), we know that there is this high-priced, custom test prep industry out there. We can do a lot better for students if we focus on skills they need anyway.” The Board is working with Khan Academy to provide as much free test prep as possible, hoping it gives everyone the access to prepare for the exam the best way possible. Still the wealthy and their parents are paying for the test prep courses looking for the edge in the college application process.
Previously, the SAT was more an aptitude and IQ test; now it is meant to show college admissions officers just what students learned. Still admissions officers are not certain about the new exam. Eric J. Furda, the dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania told the New York Times, “We’re going to need to see how they did, which test is going to be better, how can we weigh it.”
Even after students take the new exam on March 5; it is going to take years to determine if the new SAT is a success or failure especially for the students. In the meantime, Colleges are going to accept scores from both the new and old exam until 2018. The College Board has also published a table allowing counselors, colleges and students to compare the scores from both exams. The information will allow students to understand better their scores and give them info about how they rank in comparison to other students taking the new exam. The College Board plans a “major study of the 2017-18 freshman class” to determine “how well test scores predict college performance,” the whole goal of redesigning the exam.