A New Look is Coming for the SAT


Change is coming to the SAT test.

A vice president at the College Board emailed its members this week to announce that the College Board will be redesigning the SAT.

This will be the first revamping since 2005 when the essay was added and those infuriating analogies (cake is to icing as a unicycle is to __) were banished. The College Board has only overhauled the SAT twice in the past 20 years.

Why the SAT Change

I’m sure that the SAT’s overhaul didn’t come as a surprise to higher-ed insiders for at least a couple of reasons.

First, there are competitive reasons for the change. For the first time ever, more students in 2012 took the ACT than the SAT, which has been around since 1926. The ACT just barely surpassed the SAT in tests administered, but that pencil singlestill must be worrisome to the College Board.

Secondly, David Coleman, the College Board’s new president, who was intimately involved in the Common Core State Standards Initiative, has expressed his dissatisfaction with some elements of the test. At a speech at the Brookings Institute last year, Coleman said he was unhappy with the writing exam.  Here is a portion of what he said during that talk:

I have a problem with the SAT writing. So if you look at the way the SAT assessment is designed, when you write an essay even if it’s an opinion piece, there’s no source information given to you. So in other words, you write like what your opinion is on a subject, but there’s no fact on the table. So a friend of mine tutors in Hong Kong, and she was asked by her Hong Kong students, where do you get the examples for the essay? She said, you know, it’s the American way, you make them up.

Now I’m all for creativity and innovation, but I don’t think that’s quite the creativity we want to inspire in a generation of youth. That is, if writing is to be ready for the demands of career and college, it must be precise, it must be accurate, it must draw upon evidence. Now I think that is warranted by tons of information we see from surveys of college  professors, from evidence we have from other sources, so I think there is good reason to think about a design of SAT where rather than kids just writing an essay, there’s source material that they’re analyzing.

Making Up Stuff During the SAT

pencil sharpenerWhen my daughter was studying for the SAT, I remember being incredulous when I learned that students could make up any facts that they wished when writing their essays. Students, for instance, currently aren’t penalized if they want to claim in their essay that North Korea is a democracy or that the Ebola virus is a fruit.

SAT Critic Responds

Among those weighing in on the news was Robert Schaeffer, a founder of FairTest, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending the misuse of standardized tests. (Schaeffer was kind enough to endorse the second edition of my book.) Here is his reaction that he sent to the Washington Post about the upcoming redesign:

The College Board’s announcement that it plans to revise its flagship exam, less than eight years after the previous “major overhaul” of the test was first administered, is an admission that  the highly touted “new SAT” introduced in 2005 was a failure. The latest version of the test is, in fact, no better than its predecessor in predicting academic success in higher education or in creating a level playing field to assess an increasingly diverse student body. The only significant changes were that it was longer and cost test-takers more. As a result, more than 80 additional institutions have adopted test-optional or test flexible policies and the ACT overtook the SAT  as the nation’s most popular exam for colleges which still require a test. Those developments left the new College Board leadership with no choice but to try to “reformulate” its product in an effort to maintain market share and relevance.

Learn More….

If you’d like to learn more about this SAT redesign, read the post that I wrote at my college blog at CBS MoneyWatch.

Finally, if you want to learn more about the history of the last SAT revision, read this essay by Richard Atkinson, the former president of the University of California, which helped prod the College Board to make the move.

Students deserve a smarter SAT and I hope they get one. Stay tuned.




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  1. Someday I hope College Board would consider a standardized test to predict college success that is not timed. I do not believe a high-pressure timed test is the most accurate way of measuring which college applicants are the best and the brightest.

    I believe that there is one group of test-takers, high academic/low anxiety, who excel, timed or not. Another group, low academic/low anxiety, test poorly, timed or not. But two groups, high academic/high anxiety and low academic/high anxiety, may do significantly better if not timed. Non-timed tests would measure the true potential of these students. A 1995 study by Onwuegbuzie & Seaman, “The Effect of Time Constraints and Statistics Test Anxiety on Test Performance in a Statistics Course,” concluded: “Both low- and high-anxious students performed better… under the untimed condition… However, the benefit of the untimed examination was greater for high-anxious students than for low-anxious students.”

    While the College Board is trying to improve its college admissions test, wouldn’t it be great if they also considered the impact of timing, and how they could better measure applicants’ potential without time pressure?

    Lynn, I would love to see a discussion of this issue in one of your posts!

  2. Our public library has offered at least 3 times so far this school year to take a timed SAT practice test for free! Maybe other libraries do that as well. We have a fantastic library system with so much to offer for everyone!

  3. A redesign will not accomplish much without a training infrastructure around the test. My hope is that high schools will be allowed to move away from preparation for “high stakes” graduation exams into team-teaching to better prepare students for these tests. The student who cannot afford to be in an environment where s/he can practice taking these tests under timed conditions is at a disadvantage. That’s the value of “coaching” for the test.

  4. In 2009 my daughter took both the SAT and ACT. She took a four month review course (expensive) for the SAT. She studied an ACT review guide for 1 week before the test. The SAT she scored 600 on critical reading, 560 math and 640 writing. The ACT she scored English 32, Math 31, Reading 34 and Science 30 for a composite of 32. The ACT is not any easier, but I believe it is just a better test and evaluates the student more fairly. Even the SAT IIs she took in her strongest subjects she did not score as well as the ACT. I have to say from a young age my daughter would read anything non-fiction. Loved National Geographic, and still does, so maybe the ACT is better for strong readers, but she never did that well in her Honors/AP English classes. Always more of a math and science kid (currently a bio/chem major). I currently have another daughter who is a HS junior. She will SAT IIs in May because some of the colleges she is interested in require them, but will take the ACT in June and focus her limited time using ACT study guides to prepare. Hope this helps other parents of Juniors.

    1. Thanks for sharing Heather. I have heard from multiple sources that girls tend to do better on the ACT. One of those sources was a teacher at an all-girls school in California who said that historical records at the school showed this to be true for this institution.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

    1. Hi Carrie,

      The announcement didn’t mention a date, but I doubt that anything will change before 2014.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy