The New SAT: Standardized Testing for the 21st Century

Originally an IQ test administered to recruits for the army during World War I, the SAT Reasoning Test has grown into a nationally standardized college admissions test. World War I signified a milestone for test-taking; since then the SAT has expanded to every school and most college admissions processes.

After its creation, the SAT underwent only minor change until 1994 when major changes were made. Antonyms were eliminated, and the analytical reading section was expanded. In 2005, the scoring was changed and included the new essay. The Mathematics section was expanded to cover three years of high school math.

In March 2014, the College Board announced a significant overhaul of the existing SAT, and that the new version, called the SAT Reasoning Test (SAT-R, formerly SAT I) would make an appearance in March 2016.

According to the College Board, come 2016, students will encounter “an SAT that is more focused and useful than ever before.” Built around the foundational research principles outlined in the document “Empirical Foundations for College and Career Readiness,” the redesigned SAT is centered on eight key changes: relevant words in context, command of evidence, essay analyzing a source, focus on math that matters the most, problems grounded in real-world contexts, analysis in science and history/social studies, founding documents and great global conversation, and no penalty for wrong answers.

The exam will revert to a 1600 point scale. One of the major changes is an optional essay portion. Originally a 25-minute English section at the beginning of the test, the redesigned essay portion will be 50 minutes and require students to read a passage, analyze aspects of the passage, and explain how the author builds an argument to persuade an audience.

On their website, the College Board states that “The SAT and SAT Subject Tests are designed to assess your academic readiness for college. These exams provide a path to opportunities, financial support, and scholarships, in a way that’s fair to all students. The SAT and SAT Subject Tests keep pace with what colleges are looking for today, measuring the skills required for success in the 21st century.”

The College Board’s PR statement asserting the importance and fairness of its new test, however, offers a view not held by all. Nicholas Lemann attacks the hyped importance of the SAT. Lemann, journalist and author of The Big Test- The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, claims that the test has been “fetishized.” He says “This whole culture and frenzy and mythology has been built around tests, in general, SATs, in particular, and everybody seems to believe that it’s a measure of how smart you are or your innate worth or something.”

Students who go to top schools have been trained to take reasoning tests. Those whose schools are less vigorous may not be trained specifically to perform well on these tests.

Dr. Suzanne Shimek, English teacher at Lick-Wilmerding High School, questions the inherent bias in standardized tests. “I wonder whether the new SAT is going to be any big improvement over the old one in terms of fairness. The reason I question that is because if this new test is based on content knowledge, then students who go to a really good school like Lick will be at an extreme advantage. Students who live in wealthier areas tend to have access to better schools.”


Loic Marcon takes an SAT practice test. photo by Lawrie Mankoff

Many ask whether the new SAT will widen or bridge the education gap?

The College Board maintains that in accordance with its new name, the redesigned SAT aims to measure abstract reasoning skills, and in that respect retains the puzzle-solving characteristics of the old WWI IQ and intelligence tests on which it was based. Randolf Arguelles, Director of Elite Educational Institute of San Francisco, says, “That’s why the questions on the SAT-R can get somewhat convoluted. The questions are designed to resemble logic games and puzzles that the test taker solves using abstract reasoning skills. They are not designed to be a measure of how much knowledge students have retained from their classes in high school.”

Conversely, the SAT Subject Tests (SAT-S, formerly SAT II) are designed to measure how well students have retained information from high school classes. Arguelles recalls, “Back in the mid-1980s, when I was applying to college, these tests were called the Achievement Tests. That’s because this is the type of test that measures achievement in mastering an academic subject. In other words, instead of measuring the abstract reasoning skills of the test taker, as the SAT-R does, the SAT Subject Tests measure how well one retained the information taught in a high school classroom.”

Perhaps this is why the SAT Subject Tests align more in their goals with the American College Testing (ACT Test). The SAT-S is a content-based test that assesses what a student has learned in school. When comparing the SAT and the ACT, the official ACT website states that “The ACT is an achievement test, measuring what a student has learned in school. The SAT is more of an aptitude test, testing reasoning and verbal abilities.”

Meanwhile, the College Board affirms that the SAT is “a globally recognized college admission test that lets you show colleges what you know and how well you can apply that knowledge. It tests your knowledge of reading, writing and math — subjects that are taught every day in high school classrooms.”

Over the past 20-30 years, trends show that the ACT has become more popular for test-takers and college admissions departments. The ACT has been eating away at the SAT’s market share. In fact, in 2012, the ACT  overtook the SAT for the first time. Twelve US states use the ACT as their high school state standards exam. Though the ACT has been more popular across the country, the SAT is more popular among students who live on the coasts, especially in the niche of Northern California. Krista Klein, college counselor at Lick-Wilmerding High School, explains, “I’ve always thought that one of the reasons for the SAT’s popularity in areas like ours with a sophisticated college-going population (and within independent schools, more generally) is that it is more “coachable” and there are more test prep courses designed for it. Many test prep companies and tutors say that it’s much more difficult to design a “one size fits all” ACT course — so preparation for the ACT comes mostly in the way of expensive one-on-one tutoring, and there’s just not as much of it available.” She’s observed more Lick students taking the ACT in the past few years.

Though the resemblance of the new SAT to the ACT is very apparent, it is not evolving to exactly mimic the ACT. The content on the SAT-R is intended to more closely reflect Common Core educational standards, a set of academic standards in mathematics and English language arts that outline what a student should know and be able to do at the end of each grade. The new SAT’s affinity with the Common Core may result from the fact that the president of the College Board, David Coleman, is also one of the architects of the Common Core. Mr. Coleman was the impetus behind revamping the SAT.

Arguelles asserts, “It’s no coincidence that the new SAT echoes the academic skills that Common Core is emphasizing — for example, the use of algebra to solve problems or answer questions that people will encounter in real-world situations. This is somewhat controversial, but in my opinion, students who attend a school that is aligned with the Common Core may have a slightly inherent advantage over students who do not attend a Common Core-aligned school, simply because those who attend CC-aligned schools will have more practice at the skills and proficiencies that will appear on the new SAT.”

Therefore, students in San Francisco who attend CC-aligned schools or independent schools which stress reasoning and problem solving may benefit a little more from the change, but the repercussion can be felt nationwide. Klein says that it all depends on how well SF public schools embrace and teach the Common Core, and how well the test aligns with that curriculum.

“If public schools across the country teach the Common Core well and the test is closely correlated with that learning, then the test should grant college access to more students and help bridge the education gap.”

Additionally, the SAT-R is designed to be a “less coachable test.” Private tutors, hundreds of dollars spent on books, and online courses may not prove to be as much of an advantage as they are now. But Klein points out that, “there are so many inequities automatically built into any academic testing practice that it’s hard to believe the advent of the new SAT is going to move the dial very far.”

Very few know that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation helped fund the Common Core State Standards, bankrolling more than $200 million and building political support across the nation. Bill Gates organized and provided the money and structure for states to work toward these academic standards.

Shimek says, “I’m always suspicious when a change in American education comes not from teachers, students, schools, but when it comes from a private foundation like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.”

How the new SAT will play out is still very unclear. Because of the massive overhaul, some students are tentative about taking the SAT-R. This proves to be a serious dilemma for students in the class of 2017, who will be the pioneers of the new test. Klein predicts that more students in Lick’s class of 2017 will take the ACT because it’s known territory — they know what to expect, and how to prepare. Though the College Board has released sample questions, there still isn’t much information about the redesigned SAT. So naturally, students may be more drawn toward choosing the ACT.

“Everyone (including the testing agencies and the test prep instructors) will be getting used to the new test for the first year. Things will probably go back to normal after that!”

A possibility for current sophomores is to take the old SAT in the fall of junior year, because the new SAT will not be implemented until March of their junior year. If you are not good at solving the puzzle-like questions on the SAT but can read and think very quickly, then the ACT may be a better test for you. The only way to know for sure is to take a diagnostic test for each exam and see which one you do better on.

“In my experience, however, students tend to do about the same on both tests. That is, a student who is 85th percentile on the SAT usually ends up being about 85th percentile on the ACT too. There’s a reason why colleges accept either test — they measure the same skill set in equivalent ways,” says Arguelles.

Klein says, “Lick students tend to be much stronger test-takers than the average population — that probably comes as no surprise!”

The redesigned SAT, similar to the old SAT, will distribute scores on a bell curve, so the scores of Lick students may not see much change.

“Lick students should still end up where they have been in the past, relative to all the other test-takers out there.” The new SAT focuses on many aspects present in the teaching at Lick– depth rather than breadth, holistic thinking, critical reading, deep analysis, and application of knowledge to real world problems.

“It could easily end up being a better test for our students!

Posted in Features | 4 Comments »

About Dana Wu

Dana is currently a senior at Lick-Wilmerding, where she serves as a reporter as well as the Co-editor of the Features and Centerspread and a Co-managing editor of the Paper Tiger, and a Co-managing . Aside from journalism, Dana is very interested in city politics and is a member of the San Francisco Board of Advising Youth, where she works with her peers to create greater access to the city’s public libraries. This is her second year working on the newspaper, and she couldn’t be more excited to explore writing on a larger scale and share what she’s uncovered with the Lick community.

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