The New SAT: Better or Worse Than the Original?


Earlier this month College Board rolled out some major modifications to the SAT test. According to the College Board President, David Coleman, they hope that these changes will create a test to measure the years of classroom performance rather than the hours of cramming beforehand—in other words, for the test material to be more relevant to what high schoolers are already learning. But are the changes really an improvement?

There are some positive signs; obscure vocabulary words are getting canned, and students will no longer be penalized for wrong answers. The removal of a vocabulary section seems especially promising; “SAT words” carry a negative connotation in our society as antiquated or arcane (who says ‘querulous’ when ‘grumpy’ would work just as well?), but now instead of being asked to define ‘plaudit’ or ‘obdurate’, students will identify different uses for more commonly used words.

The essay section is also being eliminated from the core test, and will become an optional, separately-scored addendum (putting the test back on its pre-2005 1600 point scale). Originally, the essay was meant to evaluate a student’s background knowledge of literature by applying specific examples to a question. But the questions didn’t effectively provoke literary responses, and studies have shown that the most determining factor for score wasn’t the quality or grammatical correctness of the essay, but its length. (There is a strong, direct correlation between the length of an essay and its score, regardless of the points it made.)  The new optional essay will ask students to analyze a text and offer evidence to support their points—more similar to tasks assigned in both high school and college. Simply making this section non-mandatory goes a long way toward making the SAT a test which truly reflects students’ abilities.

I don’t know how to offer an opposing standpoint—it has been obvious for a long time that the SAT needed to be improved. If there are proponents of the old SAT, they are the people who’ve already prepared for the old version. But that is not a valid defense for not supporting the new format, as it won’t be instituted until 2015 and Princeton Review and other study resources have already begun adapting their practice materials.

We should still be cautious of weighing the SAT, or any standardized test, too heavily during the college admissions process, and only time will tell whether these changes are really an improvement, but College Board has recognized the weaknesses of their test and is making an effort to improve it.