A newer, gentler SAT

The high school experience includes several rites of passage for students: getting a driver’s license, going out on a first date, and taking the SAT.   Now the SAT journey has just gotten a little smoother.

Last week, the College Board, the organization behind the SAT as well as the Advanced Placement (AP) exams, announced major changes to the most feared test a teenager has to take: no more mandatory essay, no more penalties for wrong answers, no more difficult vocabulary.   In other words, the kinder, gentler SAT coming in 2016 resembles more the ACT, the SAT’s closest testing competitor that has sold more tests in recent years.

The last major change to the high stakes SAT exam came in 2005 when an essay component was added to the math and verbal sections, each component worth a possible 800 points for a grand total of 2,400.   Now, a perfect score reverts back to the Holy Grail number of 1,600.

Mention the acronym SAT to any grown-up and it sends shivers down one’s spine. After all, an SAT score is a major part of one’s college application used by admission officers in determining acceptance.

I had to go to Glendale Community College to take the 3-hour SAT, so if I wasn’t nervous enough about a test I had only heard about and never seen, I had additional anxiety about navigating my way to the library on a campus I had never visited.   Since I was the first in my family going to college, I had no older sibling or parent lessening my fears of what to expect.

Back then, few kids took SAT prep classes, and fewer took the SAT multiple times. It was a one shot deal.   You scored high, and your future was set.   You scored low, and you might as well apply to GCC before exiting the campus.   And the wait for the scores to arrive in the mail was interminable.

In my case, the less than stellar results did not negatively impact me as I was accepted into UCLA. However, that was a time when a 3.6 grade point average was also decent enough to get into a good college.   Today, with weighted grades, a student would need a 4.6 GPA.

In addition to competing against the ACT, the College Board combats the private companies that charge hundreds of dollars for SAT test preparation courses.   Trying to minimize their impact, the College Board is partnering with Khan Academy, a free video tutoring website that many students access online, to provide test preparation materials so that a student (or parent) wouldn’t feel the need to spend money on private lessons.

Deborah Ellinger, CEO of The Princeton Review, one of the leading test preparation companies, offered this rebuke of the revamped SAT in a press release: “We’ve never seen a test that wasn’t coachable [and] the College Board has never designed a test that we couldn’t help students crack.”   So, that’s what all this is about—figuring a way to beat the test.

The best strategy for parents and teens is to keep in mind that many colleges use a variety of factors in assessing a freshman applicant including grade point average, rigor of coursework, and extracurricular involvement.  

However, give the College Board credit for realizing its diminishing role in the standardized test marketplace by retooling the SAT to more accurately reflect what a student should know.

The origins of the SAT centered on leveling the playing field, so that those gaining entrance to college were not just the rich and privileged but those of merit as well.   Over a century later, the folks running the SAT are still trying to reach that goal.