Standardized Tests

Update on the New PSAT

Update on the New PSAT

On March 24th the College Board (CB) released a sample of its new PSAT ,along with a detailed answer key, on its website. The new, redesigned PSAT will premiere October 14th and is the first taste of the revamped SAT scheduled to be administered on 5 March 2016. 

The PSAT, which will continue to be used as the National Merit Scholarship Qualification Test (NMSQT) by junior test takers, is a departure from the PSAT of 2014.

Changes to the New ACT and SAT Essays

Changes to the New ACT and SAT Essays

Both the ACT and SAT essays will be changing within the next 14 months. The ACT will implement its new essay format with the September 12th, 2015 test date, and the SAT will likely premier its new optional essay on its January 24th, 2016 test.

One of the key reasons behind the overhauls is that in their current states, both essays can be written to formula.

The AP US History Controversy

The AP US History Controversy
Larry Krieger is concerned with the new AP US History (APUSH) curriculum--in effect fall 2014, as put forth in the College Board’s new framework. His first concern, which he opined in a recent Orange County Register column, is that the APUSH framework does not align with the California History Social Science (CHSS) framework (nor frameworks from other states such as Texas and Alabama), meaning, in his opinion, the College Board is undermining how US History will be taught.

ACT’s Aspire Replaces ACT’s PLAN and EXPLORE and Beyond

This spring the ACT administered for the last time EXPLORE (for 8th and 9th grade assessments) and PLAN (ACT’s version of PSAT for the 10th grade); in their stead the ACT launched Aspire, its brand new entry into the world of core curriculum assessment tests.

Aspire is a suite of tests for assessing Common Core performance across English, math, reading, science, and writing, addressing students from 3rd grade through to junior year.

The Test Optional Alternative

While many parents and students are still wrestling with the interchangeability of the ACT and the SAT; the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC) released a study in February 2014 showing there is no perceptible difference in academic performance between students who do and do not submit ACT or SAT scores.

More than an SAT Score

On April 16th the College Board released sample questions from the 2016 ‘New’ SAT which were received with much fanfare by the SAT test-training world.

The questions and new essay format, though curriculum based and seemingly ‘more relevant’, still measure convergent thinking: the ability to assess multiple strands of information to arrive at one best answer. Convergent thinking alone, however, does not measure a student’s creativity or intellectual curiosity. To gain a fuller picture of a student’s creative capacity, measuring divergent thinking, the ability to develop multiple approaches to a problem, needs to be included.

One measure of divergent thinking is the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (TTCT). The Torrance test was developed by Paul Torrance in the 1950s and includes questions that encourage a multiple of responses, such as how many uses are there for maple syrup or what type of world would there be without electricity?

Divergent thinking skills measured by the Torrance test are a much better indicator of creative achievement in art, music, writing, science, government and business than IQ tests are. Back in the 1950s Torrance performed his own study over a period of seven years across every student attending two Minnesota elementary schools. The students took the TTCT every year along with a traditional IQ test. In 1999, when these scores were reviewed, the divergent thinking scores were three times more effective at measuring creative achievement as compared to IQ test metrics.

Creativity, however, is just one variable in college success and beyond. In 1983 Torrance also pulled together a list of other characteristics that were ‘consistently better predictors of creative achievement, far surpassing virtually all aspects of scholastic achievement, even school grades and IQ test scores.’  The key characteristic according to Torrance is “falling in love with something—your dream, your image of the future.”

Once a person has become passionate about achieving something, other characteristics emerge including ‘love of work’ (once you’ve fallen in love with something, pursuing it is no longer work); ‘persistence’ as now you’re pursuing something that spiritually demands achievement; ‘purpose in life’; diversity of experience; high energy; creative self-concept (self-identity); risk taking; openness to change; and becoming accustomed to non-conformity, or ‘being a majority of one.’ Composites of these characteristic are found to regularly outweigh IQ Tests or Divergent Thinking in lifelong creative achievement.

Consequently, a means of measuring long-term creative achievement is needed. Scott Barry Kaufman in his Scientific American 12 March 2014 article, ‘Imagining a New College Entrance Examination,’ analyzed the limits of convergent, divergent thinking and concluded both, by their very natures, limit the multiple paths ‘to intellectual achievement’. His recommendation is that students, from the first day of high school, develop a portfolio of achievement. In it they can place anything that shows imagination, originality, intellectual curiosity, how they led a class or interpreted a theory…this, in effect, would recreate their achievements and share with the admissions office what they deem important. In short, make a case as to why they are college ready.

This might be perceived as overwhelming to some admissions offices, but the best colleges already do this to some degree. Harvard’s supplement to the Common Application contains an essay prompt asking to tell it something that hasn’t already been mentioned somewhere else in your application—it also asks for an abstract of any independent research conducted. Bard College offers an innovative online essay exam. RISD requires a candidate submit a drawing of a bicycle, and each UC Application contains two personal statements totaling 1000 words (UCLA alone read over 85,000 such applications this last admissions cycle.) 

The point is most schools, to truly evaluate a candidate, cannot rely on standardized tests—simple performance markers from a specific place and time. Whether the New SAT takes hold and gains mandates from states is almost immaterial. It’s merely another form of measuring convergent thinking. Your true measure is the actions you take and the activities you perform throughout your high school career and your life.  


The Redesigned SAT

At last the new redesigned SAT was formerly announced on 5 March 2014 ending months of speculation about its content.

The new test content will be first administered in the fall 2015 PSAT, with the SAT launch in ‘spring 2016.’  

The New SAT will eliminate the quarter point guessing penalty, obviate ‘obscure vocabulary’ from its reading sections—stressing discovery of meaning through context, and require students to support their answers to reading questions from evidence supplied in the passage.

On the mathematics front, the New SAT will focus on problem solving and data analysis (ratios, percentages, and proportions), linear equations and systems, and something that sounds a bit daunting, “Passport to Advanced Math” which deals with ‘manipulation of complex equations’. In essence the New SAT will be narrowing its math focus to the three aforementioned areas (though it reserves the right to add or change areas as needed to ensure its math questions are applicable to a wide range of majors and careers).         

The problems a student will encounter in the New SAT are based on ‘real-world contexts’.  For this it will offer ‘evidence-based reading and writing sections’ with questions that  cover literature and ‘literary non-fiction’  including charts, graphs and prose, similar to what can be found in science, social science majors and careers. These are the same type of questions addressed in the ACT Science section, and in its social science and natural science reading passages.

Moreover, the redesigned SAT will also have questions that will make students apply their suite of skills to ‘science, history, and social studies’.

Any seasoned high school counselor who hears this description without the words, “ redesigned New SAT” would leap to the conclusion that it describes the ACT, but, admittedly, there are some unique additions that make the New SAT a shade or two different.         

Specifically, the New SAT will now offer, for lack of a better description, a ‘Great Books’ section that  features a selection from America’s founding documents, such as the Federalist Papers, the US Constitution, or a text from the ‘Great Global conversation’ about freedom, justice, and human dignity.         

Furthermore, the writing section (with its improving, correcting, and editing sentences) will be optional. This is surprising as the addition of the SAT Writing subject test was the major redesign feature added to the 2005 SAT facelift (at the insistence of the University of California which if denied would have eliminated the SAT admissions requirement). Many institutions, however, don’t even consider the writing score in their admissions calculations.

The redesigned SAT will be three hours long, with an additional 50 minutes allocated to the essay. It will also return to its pre-2005 1600 point scale (the essay score will be reported separately), and will have both a print and online version.

Lastly, the redesigned SAT will attempt to curtail the need for expensive test prep services by allying with Khan Academy ( which will offer 200 videos, free, covering the main topics of the test.

When Donald Coleman made the announcement of the changes to the test, he opined, “It is time to admit that the SAT and ACT have become disconnected from the work of our high schools… [students] are skeptical that either the SAT or the ACT allows them to show their best work…”  A more accurate description would have been that the ACT, which is already well situated to assess the curriculum-based skills that are at the foundation of Donald Coleman’s Common Core State Standards, is now being joined by the redesigned SAT. We know curriculum-based testing has worked well for the ACT, as it’s now the dominant standardized test in America.  The SAT covets a place at the ACT table. How the test taker and the college admissions offices benefit from having two curriculum-based tests is anyone’s guess.   

New SAT Delayed

In February of 2013 the new president of the College Board, David Coleman, announced a complete redesign of the SAT would be unveiled in the spring of 2015: this has been delayed a year.

The new SAT format will be contained in the fall 2015 PSAT with the revised SAT releasing in spring 2016. Robert Schaeffer of Fair Test, ever the sceptic of College Board endeavors, opined: “I always thought that David Coleman’s initial target of a spring 2015 rollout for the latest ‘new’ SAT was incredibly optimistic, given the College Board’s normal process for developing items.”

This delay, though, shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Ostensibly, the reason Mr. Coleman gives for delaying the release is that many of the admissions departments were requesting more time to prepare for the adjustment. Yet, there is a lot that has to be accomplished in 18 months. The new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) need to be implemented across the 45 states that have signed up, then the assessment of the CCSS, which will become the new SAT, needs to be finalized, and lastly the College Board needs to get as many states as possible to adopt the new SAT as a mandatory statewide assessment tool.  A delay is not surprising, whether or not the cause is the admissions officers.

So where did the CCSS come from and are its objectives achievable? CCSS originated in the National Governors Association for best practices among high schools. Dr. Louisa Moats, a well-known researcher, teacher, and psychologist was recruited in the CCSS effort in 2009 by David Coleman to write the ‘Reading Foundation Skills’ section. The skills covered in CCSS are geared to students planning to attend 4-year highly selective colleges. Dr. Moats states: “Realistically at least half, if not the majority of students are not going to meet those standards as written…” Furthermore, she believes: “Many of our teachers are not qualified or prepared to teach the standards we have written.”

Sandra Stotsky, a professor of Education at the University of Arkansas, and a member of the consortium that created Common Core, told “Everyone is willing to believe that Common Core standards are rigorous, competitive, internationally bench-marked and research-based. They are not.”

Obviously, the concerns surrounding any national curriculum, including the CCSS, tend to be volatile. Nevertheless it is fully supported by the Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan who claims much of the anxiety over CCSS is based on ‘misinformation.’ 45 states, however, have signed on. To help the adoption process, the federal government offers grants through the Race to the Top program. Colorado, for example, received $18 million when it joined.   

The new SAT, as an assessment tool to measure the efficacy of the CCSS will incorporate a number of changes including making vocabulary more practical (eliminating words such as ‘treacly’ in favor of words like ‘deliberate’.) The essay portion of the Writing section will emphasize argument using examples from supplied source materials. Math will feature understanding concepts and procedures. CCSS, unlike the ACT, currently contains no assessments for science or social studies.  

In the meantime the ACT, which from its creation was a curriculum-based test, is mandatory in eleven states, including Colorado. Delaware is the only state with 100% participation on the SAT. If through creating the assessment for CCSS, the SAT can capture a portion of these states, in a manner like the ACT, the College Board will have transformed itself into a curriculum-based standard and regained its perch high atop the world of standardized college testing.

The question remains: can the SAT outdo the ACT at its own game? Though the real question should be: how best are test-taking students served by two curriculum based standardized tests? The answer will emerge over the next half a decade.   

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.

The Proposed Redesign of the SAT

2012 proved to be a challenging year for the College Board and its SAT.

For the first time since the SAT’s inaugural administration in 1926, another test, the ACT, was administered to more students. Though the ACT nosed ahead by a mere 2,000 students, the repercussions are still reverberating throughout the College Board headquarters in New York City. By fall of last year, the College Board had selected a new president, David Coleman. By February, Coleman wrote to his fellow board members: “While the SAT is the best standardized measure of college and career readiness currently available, the College Board has a responsibility to the millions of students we serve each year to ensure that our programs are continuously evaluated and enhanced…” (, 10 April 2013, College Board Announces Plans to Redesign the SAT by Scott Jaschik)

No specifics were given.

The last, and only time, the SAT was overhauled was in 2005, when it discarded the analogy section and added the writing section, at the request of the University of California.

By 2008, the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC) released a report suggesting colleges should reconsider the need for standardized tests. Over the same period of time, over 80 additional 4-year colleges adopted test-optional or test flexible policies. Today over 38% of all four-year colleges are either test flexible or test optional and the list contains such highly selective schools as Middlebury, NYU, and Wake Forest.

Obviously the 2005 overhaul did not effectively qualm the concerns of the test-taking market. This was reflected most starkly in the comments by Robert Schaeffer, the director of Fair Test and an inveterate critic of the SAT: “…the previous attempt to create a ‘new Coke’ was rejected by the marketplace, so it became necessary to ‘reformulate’ the product once again in order to remain competitive with the ACT.” (Ibid.)

Though we can only speculate at what the new SAT will be like, there are a few clues as to what might lie ahead.

David Coleman who attended Yale, studied English literature at Oxford on a Rhodes and co-founded, in 2007, the Student Achievement Partners, a non-profit organization involved in developing Common Core standards, appears intent on incorporating these Common Core standards into the SAT. (A Common Standard for reading at the 11-12th grade level, for example, would be, “Determine two or more central ideas of a text and analyze their development.” The full suite of Common Core standards can be found at He wrote in his College Board February missive: “The improved SAT will strongly focus on the core knowledge and skills that evidence shows are most important to prepare students for the rigors of college and career.”

That, however, is what the ACT has been doing for decades with its ‘College Readiness Standards’ across its entire suite of tests: EXPLORE, PLAN, and the ACT. When hearing of the proposed SAT redesign, a spokesman for the ACT commented that the, “ACT was founded 54 years ago because ETS and College Board rejected EF Lindquist’s proposal to change the SAT from an aptitude test to an achievement test. Dr. Lindquist, along with co-founder Ted McCarrell subsequently decided to develop his own achievement test, which became the ACT in 1959…” (Ibid.)

Coleman, in a 2011 speech at the Brookings Institute, prior to his becoming president of the College Board, also noted weaknesses in the essay portion of the SAT. Rather than allow students to blithely supply their own examples he felt source examples should be added for students to review and edit to make their arguments more cogent and exacting.  

Another redesign within eight years of its last overhaul indicates the SAT is undergoing an identity crisis. Initially, the SAT stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test. The IQ association, and the scorn that brought, led the College Board to change the acronym to Scholastic Assessment Test. Now it’s just the SAT. Possibly in the future it will mirror the ACT—which makes you wonder whether test-takers will then clamor for SAT Classic.

With this redesign, the College Board will lose much more than a quarter point if it makes the wrong choice.