College Board tests out troubling SAT revisions

New changes to the aging test may not be all that valuable in measuring student proficiency.

Brian Reinken

The College Board recently announced it will heavily revise the SAT. New measures, which would begin in the spring of 2016, are meant to better evaluate students’ college readiness.

The reforms target a broad range of issues. On a structural level, the exam will return to a 1,600-point score system — the College Board abandoned this less than a decade ago — based on a composite score of 800 maximum points each in math and reading. There will be no penalty for guessing on the exam. Furthermore, the essay portion will be optional and graded separately from the rest of the test.

In the math section, the SAT will focus on linear equations, functions and ratios. Some sections will not allow students to use a calculator.

In reading, the test will include documents that pertain to a more extensive range of subjects, including history and social science, in addition to the traditional literature. Every student who takes the SAT exam will analyze a “founding document” of the United States, such as the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. Finally, the College Board will retailor the SAT’s vocabulary section to focus more on words such as “empirical” and “synthesis,” which CEO and President David Coleman said students are likely to encounter in college courses.

Writing and communication

I have trouble with the changes’ implicit cold shoulder to writing and reading. The current SAT’s essay portion certainly has its share of problems. Critics often observe that the exam emphasizes what students say rather than how they say it,  though this seems to be an issue that pertain to the exam’s grading system rather than the its actual structure. Making the writing portion optional seems like a way to avoid rather than remedy these complaints.

In what college or career is writing optional? A well-tailored writing portion would grade students on their ability to think critically, analyze information and communicate their ideas. In other words, it would be an invaluable experience for prospective college students.

The changes in vocabulary are equally troubling. The College Board’s examples of new SAT vocabulary words — “empirical” and “synthesis,” remember — seem to indicate that the College Board intends to prepare students for careers in math and science. Needless to say, there are other career options, including business and communication.

True, few people use “SAT words” in everyday speech. But everyday speech is also riddled with grammatical errors, pauses and slang. It sounds exactly how writing should not.

Complex words allow for more nuanced and variegated forms of communication. They make writing profound, surprising and even delightful. And if college isn’t a place to learn new words, then what is?

Often, American culture values what’s streamlined and concise. Communication, however, isn’t a scientific theory, and it isn’t always best when reduced to its simplest possible form.

Founding documents

The inclusion of a founding American text in every SAT exam is somewhat more troubling.

Tens of thousands of international students take the SAT every year. One expo in Hong Kong alone hosts 60,000 Chinese SAT takers.

Putting American documents on the SAT probably won’t deter international students. They will, however, be at a distinct disadvantage. Furthermore, because there are so few “founding documents” available, a canon will eventually develop and become useless. International students will still take the test, but they will be forced to study American history and culture before doing so.

The SAT is meant to be a proficiency, not a citizenship, exam. International historical documents are just as valuable as America’s. Why limit the SAT to American documents when it could include important international texts like the English Magna Carta, the Hindu text Bhagavad Gita or the “Analects” of Confucius?

Final grade

Several of the SAT’s new measures, including a different math section and the abolition of a penalty on guessing, are valuable changes. Additionally, the inclusion of documents from a wide variety of fields will help appeal to a more diverse body of learners rather than simply one that knows how to memorize the equations or the rules of English grammar. As always, however, it isn’t enough to improve some aspects while leaving others behind.

The SAT changes purportedly result from a desire to reconnect with realistic college standards. The College Board likely recognized that in 2012, the SAT’s popularity dropped below that of the ACT. Modifying the test is merely a way to preserve its market value.

The fact that the College Board recognized change as a solution, however, indicates that companies are feeling pressure to acknowledge the flaws with the current test system. It will take time to find the best model — future exams may even eliminate multiple-choice questions and time constraints — but standardized tests will invariably continue to adapt until then.

Maybe one of these days they’ll deserve a perfect score.