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Articles / Preparing for College / Revamped SAT Worries Students

Feb. 11, 2016

Revamped SAT Worries Students

It's nail-biting time for high school students. The redesigned SAT is about to deploy and that means dealing with change. Many students have gotten into a groove with the previous SAT format and their test prep methods have calmed and reassured them. Those days are gone.

To say that this redesign has caused angst and protest is to put it mildly. One poster, in a College Confidential (CC) discussion forum thread, notes:

Some educators fear that the revised test — one of the biggest redesigns ever — will penalize certain students, like immigrants and the poor.

That phrase, "one of the biggest redesigns ever," is at the core of the unsettling that has descended over high schoolers. The New York Times has entered into the panic sweepstakes with their article, New, Reading-Heavy SAT Has Students Worried. The emphasis on reading is the big hurt for many students. That's the point of the CC forum poster, above.

For those of you who are still in the dark about what your SAT-taking sons and daughters will face, here's a helpful comparison of the old and new SAT. Regarding the optional essay, Kaplan's Russell Schaffer has some insight:

Of the more than 300 top colleges and universities across the United States surveyed that we surveyed, only 13% will require applicants submit the new SAT's optional essay section. Notably, however, schools that fall in that category include the nation's top tier: Harvard University, Yale University, Princeton University, Dartmouth College and Stanford University are among those that will require applicants to submit the SAT essay.

The Times notes that:

Chief among the changes, experts say: longer and harder reading passages and more words in math problems.

One CC poster comments:

My understanding was that math is being taught with more word problems than just memorizing equations. By now I would suspect this method of teaching is more familiar to students and they should be used to decoding and taking things in context instead of just numbers.

The Times ponders:

It has also led to a general sense that the new test is uncharted territory, leaving many students wondering whether they should take the SAT or its rival, the ACT. College admissions officers say they are waiting to see how the scores turn out before deciding how to weight the new test.

Good point, to which a CC comment speaks:

SAT and ACT tests both have their uses. Eons ago it was unfair, I thought, that instate students needed ACT results but OOS could submit the SAT they took for other schools instead. That was an era of snail mail and needing to do each application separately so far fewer apps were done (and people knew about far fewer schools outside their area). Also- back in the day it was "once and done" with those tests. No fancy prep courses either. And lower test score- getting top scores was much harder (I heard when they rescaled things those old scores got improved). Time to get back to fewer students doing as well. Perhaps more thinking skills will be tested, the ones prep courses can't finagle as easily (if they do the students learn real, usable skills from). In the old, old days there were the SAT analogies to contend with- and the more you could figure out vocabulary the better you could do.

The Times: The College Board said that the number of words in the reading section had remained the same — about 3,250 on the new test, and 3,300 on the old one — and that the percentage of word problems in the math sections of the old and the new test was roughly the same, about 30 percent.

“We are very mindful of the verbal load on this test," Cyndie Schmeiser, the chief of assessment at the College Board, said. “We are keeping it down. I think kids are going to find it comfortable and familiar. Everything about the test is publicly available. There are no mysteries."

Why don't I trust College Board? "Comfortable and familiar." Just because there are still words? CB also presents a proactive rationale that will come in handy to defend itself once the outrage erupts: "Everything about the test is publicly available." So, we should prepare for something like, "Hey, man, we put all this stuff out there for the kids to digest. Don't blame us if their train went off the rails!"

Back to CC:

ACT remains the test of champions.

Take a test drive.

The Times offers a handy feature -- an interactive look into the new SAT:

The redesigned SAT contains longer and harder reading passages and more words in math problems, experts say. How well would you do? Try these questions, taken from a College Board practice test ...

How about a sampling of the (currently) 930 (!) comments about the Times article?

- The math problems people solve in real life have lots of words wrapped around them. Word problems are the only problems that matter (except, I suppose, to university mathematicians).

The real failure here lies in our approach to teaching math that puts so much emphasis on memorizing algorithms and so little on students understanding what they are doing ...

- As an experienced SAT tutor & a teacher in a low income school, I've been dismayed by the new SAT format ever since it was introduced. Before I go on, I will say something the media seems not to be aware of:

College Board has aggressively changed the SAT format for 2 main reasons:

1. It has been losing ground to the ACT for several years now b/c people perceive the ACT to be 'easier' & more practical; the new SAT touts it is "more similar" to the ACT. Of course, both tests are on a bell shaped curve with standard deviations, but marketing & perception is what sells.

2. Pearson has had the billion $ edge in Common Core testing. CB wants in. It wants to position itself to be 'the' test students take for CC as opposed to Pearson's PARCC. This is why it brags it is 'aligned' to CC ...

[I'll add a BIG "Aha!" to the writer's point #1. I've said that before here.]

- The SAT is a waste of time. Hundreds of good colleges don't even look at SAT scores and studies show that high school GPAs are a more accurate predictor of college success ...

- ... Though I've written professionally for years, I don't believe the world revolves around words. There is more than one type of "language." Math is its own language, as is music. Framing math questions in somewhat confusing sentences -- difficult to decipher under pressure with time constraints -- undermines some of the most talented students, those who naturally think in non-verbal terms. Perhaps the math tests are being written by educators who are not inclined towards math or do not love the subject. Would you try to test musical abilities using verbal questions? ...

- Seems to me all these changes to the SAT are meant to stem market share losses that it has suffered to the ACT. Which makes me view the College Board as a for-profit outfit masquerading as a non-profit ...


- I taught SAT prep (pro bono) for 14 years in some tough Brooklyn neighborhoods. The new SAT is profoundly harder than the old one was ...

Okay, you get the drift, I hope. Read the full Times article (spend some time with the comments) and the CC thread. Also, give that cool interactive test drive a shot. Then, make up your mind about whether or not newer is better.

My mind, as you may have surmised, is already made up. From where I sit, I see that the ACT has pulled astride the SAT and is about to get a beautiful view of it (and the College Board) in its rear view mirror.


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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