Report on Upcoming Changes to SAT & ACT

When College Board president David Coleman addressed the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC) conference in Toronto two weeks ago, he confirmed that the new SAT, slated for delivery in 2015, will be undergoing substantial changes, especially the Essay section.

Coleman, during his address, posited the idea of a new and improved SAT essay: “What if you were analyzing a source and using evidence from that source. Might such an essay prompt celebrate analytic writing?”

Jon Reider, a counselor from San Francisco University High School, suggested getting rid of the essay altogether. First he mentioned that one of his students, who was at the top of his English class, complained that he received a low score on the essay. Reider’s response was, “you are a good English student and you’ve been taught to stop and think before you write, but that’s not an asset on this test.” Reider continued: “I challenge anyone in the room: Have you ever sat down for professional purposes to write about a question you have never seen before, in which the accuracy of what you write is totally and utterly meaningless.”

Coleman’s response was: “…you’ve got a point. You really do.” Besides the essay portion getting a makeover, the SAT vocabulary is also under the magnifying glass.

‘SAT words,’ words you might see on the SAT and never use or hear again, will probably be banished from the 2015 revision. Coleman plans to jettison such words as ‘membranous,’ “treacly,’ and ‘mawkish,’ and supplant them with more commonly used words such as ‘synthesis,’ ‘distill,’ and ‘transform.’

Coleman, who co-created the Common Core Standards has set benchmarks for learning by grade and seems to be chewing at the bit to incorporate subject standards into the SAT, which is exactly what the ACT already delivers. When this was pointed out at the conference, Coleman dismissed the remark by saying he wasn’t going into a Pepsi versus Coke argument.  Instead he asserted that: “The heart of the revised SAT will be analyzing evidence. The College Board is reaching out to teachers and college faculty to help us design questions that, for example, could ask students to use math to analyze the data on an economics study or the results of a scientific experiment, or analyze the evidence provided within texts in literature, history, geography or natural science.” Coleman’s remarks were long on concepts and short on specifics for good reason: he must consult with the College Board members on each element of the redesign.

While the SAT is undergoing a facelift, the ACT is by no means settling into complacency. In 2015 the ACT will be administered on computer, as well as paper. The computerized version will contain free-response questions and images on-screen (especially the science section) that will allow a student to adjust an experiment to determine relationships between, say, distance and pressure. This pending proposed version of the ACT elicits more questions than it answers: which questions will be graded by the computer, which by humans? How will the ACT keep the versions comparable? There is no rest for the weary—either the test makers or takers. Regardless of how these details work themselves out, the ACT assures future test takers that the basic content will not change.     

Of course no matter the changes to either standardized test, detractors remain. Richard Schaeffer, the director of FairTest, an advocate of dispensing with these standardized tests, notes that despite the changes both have made  throughout the years, neither test has proven capable of predicting college performance, nor explaining gaps in predicting female, male, and low income student performance. In the meantime, 3.3 million students will be taking one or both of these tests over the next 12 months—this is big business—so the tweaking will go on.