The New SAT: My Response

I have had a lot of emails and phone calls the last several days regarding the new SAT; so, I thought I’d just post them rather than write my regular daily blog about the Questions of the Day.

Everybody is reporting in the news this past week that the SAT has some changes coming–big changes.  There’s no question that these are going to be the most significant modifications we’ve seen during the 24 years I’ve been involved in test prep.  Prior changes have been tweaking the format by eliminating antonyms and allowing the use of calculators (1994) or adding a few new math concepts (2005).  When the College Board added the essay in 2005 that was a big deal.  Now we are being forewarned of a major philosophical change in the Board leadership’s thinking that is driving a major revamping of the test.

I wish I didn’t have to comment about the power and politics behind all the news but it is something the public needs to at least consider.  David Coleman, the College Board’s President and Chief Executive Officer, was one of the two or three most significant players in designing and establishing the Common Core standards.  When he was hired, he brought the “Common Core” philosophy with him to the College Board and it has obviously impacted the new SAT changes.  Bill Gates of Microsoft fame was a big supporter of establishing the Common Core.  Mr. Gates also has provided significant financial support to the Khan Academy.  Mr. Coleman and the College Board have recently engaged the Khan Academy to provide free test prep for the current and future versions of the test.  I don’t know where connecting those dots leads us but at least you need to know it is partly about money.

I applaud the College Board for their effort to try to reduce the costs of test prep and thereby save families some money.  I’ve been a first-hand witness to the large, national test prep companies preying on families’ fears of the test.  They have administered fake SATs that under-predict student performance and made billions of dollars trying to raise scores by remediating students’ “weaknesses” when they didn’t exist.  When they did exist, the companies and students often underperformed and left families with hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars on their credit cards and no score improvements to show for it.

I have happily been part of the test prep industry since 1991.  Since 1995, I’ve operated by own business.  My first four years in the industry I worked for one of the national test prep companies and saw the importance of profits leading to turning down students whose families could not afford the services.  I must say that in 1991 that wasn’t my previous employer’s philosophy.  However, by 1995, everything changed and that is why I left them to start a business that welcomed all students regardless of family resources.  We have successfully operated as a non-profit asking families with resources to support us so that students from less financially successful families could participate in our programs.  Students who need help with the SAT, regardless of family income, should have access to solid test prep and I heartily support the College Board’s efforts to do so.  I hope that the Kahn programs make a difference in students’ scores.

Before you begin fretting about all the changes, be sure to keep in mind that if you are in tenth grade or beyond, the changes will not affect you.  You will take the current version of the SAT.  Only if you are in ninth grade or younger, will you be affected.

Let’s turn our attention to the new changes in the test.  First, the changes are designed to make school more helpful in preparing for the test.  The test is going to be in sync with the Common Core standards and your school studies will reflect those standards.  That should help.  However, I believe focused, effective and dedicated test prep efforts will continue to raise students’ scores.

Second, the SAT is going to be a lot more like the ACT.  Maybe the changes in part are in response to the fact that for the first time more students took the ACT than the SAT last year (which is certainly about money).  The essay will be optional.  The “guessing penalty” for wrong answers is going away.  There will be science on the new SAT.  The unusual “SAT vocabulary” is disappearing.  A lot of people think the ACT is easier and are happy about these changes.  They are wrong; it isn’t easier.  If you get approximately 55% of the answers correct on either test, you get about an average score in each case!

Third, the reading passage content and format is changing.  However, until we actually see some sample passages and questions, we aren’t precisely sure what to expect.  For example, the passages will sometimes include science data presented in charts to supplement the narrative part of the passage.  (That sure sounds like the ACT Science Test to me.)  What is not clear is whether the questions will be simply reading data, interpreting data, or drawing conclusions from the data.  We won’t know until we see some examples.

Fourth, they have announced as a big deal that you will have to identify supporting evidence from the passages to substantiate your reading response.  So what?  You’ve had to do that since I took the test in 1963!  If you couldn’t defend your answer to yourself using the evidence in the passage, you made a lot of mistakes.  What difference does it make now that you have to tell them how you came up with your answer?  I rather suspect and hope the reality of this test change is more useful than what they’ve described.  Again, we’ll have to wait to see sample questions.

Fifth, it sounds like the multiple-choice grammar and sentence completion questions are going to disappear as they currently exist.  These topics will be tested in other formats.  For example, they say they will be testing vocabulary in the context of the reading passages using words with multiple meanings.  So what?  That’s nothing new.  I’ve been helping students do that since I wrote my first book in 1995.  Let’s wait to see some sample questions before making any final judgments about whether this is a real change or not.

So, how will students prepare?  My crystal ball indicates the answer is, “Not much differently.”  Students who come from families with financial resources will not see value in a “free” program from Khan just like they don’t use the many free resources like, March2success, and now.  A lot of students will be skeptical as I am about whether a program paid for by the College Board and provided by Khan will truly include strategies for improving scores and not simply “test familiarization.”  That has been the College Board’s approach with all of their previous free and for-fee test prep materials.  The issue is are they really going to pay for something that is new and will actually help?  Or will they just be presenting more of the same through Khan?

I rather suspect what will happen is that more students from both ends of the family income spectrum will prepare.  The new test is certainly going to present some innovative and unique testing challenges for students.  That situation will spur them to prepare.  Students from low income families will use the College Board’s supported Khan videos.  They will also utilize programs that are more personal and supplemented by tutors and teachers like mine that is supported by my charity The Mary Alice Education Fund.  The families that can afford it will continue to pay for high-priced help because the new test is already raising concern about their children’s futures.  My phone started ringing Wednesday after Tuesday’s initial news reports about the changes.  In fact, I think national test prep companies’ investors are already counting their new profits (money again).  Even more students fearing the new changes will want professional help rather than free videos on the Internet.  I worry that even more families who shouldn’t invest in expensive programs will do so because they fear their children will be left behind by the new test because everyone knows where the “rich kids” go.

Everyone needs to relax.  Two years after the new test is released this will all be a big yawn!  Just like in the past, nobody will care.  Students won’t know the differences.  Test prep organizations, counselors, teachers, admissions officers and financial aid directors won’t give the changes a thought.  Everything will be business as usual.  The SAT scores will continue to be too important and the same well-prepared students will get higher scores.  We should all hope that the new test will do as good a job of predicting college success as the old one has.  Only time will tell.

My best advice is whether we are talking about current or future versions of the SAT and ACT, students need to take some extra time to prepare for the tests.  Standard classroom instruction is and will continue to be insufficient.  The College Board supports my belief.  If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have contracted with Khan!  Think about that the next time you read a College Board statement that says test prep doesn’t improve scores.  Follow the money.  They’ve been selling test prep for years while saying it doesn’t help.  Of course it helps.  They just don’t want somebody else making the test prep money.

All that’s left to think about is what do the ACT folks have in store for us.  The College Board has taken the first shot in the battle for your money.  Now we’ll see how the ACT folks respond.

About Bob Alexander

Bob has been a professional educator starting with teaching biology, becoming a school administrator, and then working as an education lobbyist in Washington, DC. He got his start in national testing by becoming a consulting test writer, later joining Kaplan as a director, and finally starting his own business in 1995. He has written numerous books, consulted for school districts and colleges, developed his website and been featured on a DVD set. He offers SAT and ACT prep classes and tutors individuals and small groups of students in central Florida.
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