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Is the New SAT Worth Cheering About?

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I want to believe that there are reasons to cheer on the new SAT as much as the next person, but I keep coming up with more questions than reasons to stand on my school roof and dance.

I know that David Coleman, in all sincerity, sees his 700-million dollar organization’s testing programs as being about access, in particular access to college for disadvantaged students. I understand why the College Board gets the media all excited with its annual announcements that more students of color and more students on free and reduced lunch are taking SATs and Advanced Placement exams (although the media reports tend to bury what might be the real lead: that the performance of disadvantaged students hasn’t always risen in proportion to the number of takers).

I even want to credit Mr. Coleman with beginning to understand that the tests themselves have probably been seen as being among the most impermeable barriers to college access for half a century or more. Its the colleges fault for using the tests in this way, you might say, but the College Board hasn’t exactly resisted going along with this trend; I guess it’s supply-and-demand.

The “new SAT,” still sight-unseen to most of us, is supposed to make everything better. But will it? Or can it?

To be of use to colleges in the ways that its predecessors have been, the new SAT isn’t going to be, and in fact can’t be, any “easier” than the current model. Despite assurances that arcane vocabulary will be gone, that the “guessing penalty” will be ended, that math questions will focus on fewer topics, and that even the reading sections will be based on “founding documents,” presumably familiar in style and content, the test is still going to be based on the tried-and-true 1600-point scale, norm-referenced. (And let us remember, as news stories focus on the Gettysburg Address as an example of a founding document—what a relief! And it’s only 270 words!—that there are eighty-five Federalist Papers, all arguably “founding documents” and many as dense as anything any kid has ever encountered on the old SAT.)

Despite the pleasant suggestions that regular use of free resources like Khan Academy will suffice as test prep for the new SAT and the attractive thought that the $4.5 billion test-prep juggernaut will go the way of the buggy whip industry, the new SAT will still have to be extremely difficult to score extremely well on. It will have to be, or selective colleges will simply chuck it in favor of some other way of sieving out the most able students. This may give new impetus to the ACT, or it could mean that newer instruments like the CWRA could become for high school seniors what the old SAT has been.

So I don’t believe for one minute that any diligent student who focuses on homework and not test-prep can magically become a 1600 performer on the new SAT; the old percentiles will have to work on the new test.

Or if the new SAT really isthat easy, we are likely to see a rapid rise in the difficulty of the test, so that the 2018 kid who scores a 1600 might only rate a 1350 in 2028 as the test is re-normed to keep it “hard” enough that Princeton and Stanford can use it to weed out applicants unlikely to succeed.

As for the “optional” writing section, let me point out (as others have) that the “optional” writing portion of the ACT is now in fact required by many universities. Most of these are highly selective schools that give equivalency to the ACT (with writing only!) for the SAT. It’s safe to assume that these same colleges will also require applicants to submit the new SAT writing test. And by the way, the ACT charges an extra sixteen bucks for its writing test, which also tacks about 45 minutes onto the length of a testing session.

In sum, while a test whose content reflects what kids do in school is an improvement and the end of the current Writing test is to be applauded, I don’t see that the new SAT is going to be an easier or any less stressful to prepare for than the current test. If it calls upon students to focus more on schoolwork, I guess that’s a good thing.

But the new SAT is still going to be hard—it has to be very hard—and it will still feel like a barrier to college admission to many students, all talk of “access” aside.

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