SAT revision: The reaction

Should a college-bound student take the SAT or ACT? What difference will the SAT revisions announced last week make as students weigh that decision? These questions are being asked in the nation’s high schools, and they are likely to intensify in the two years before the new SAT debuts in 2016.

Here’s one take from Hayfield Secondary School in Fairfax County.

“What I encourage my students to do is take both,” said Amy Hackett Ferguson, a career center specialist at the school in the Alexandria section of Fairfax.

“I tell them, some students do on one; some do better on the other. It behooves you to take both since you don’t know which one you’re going to do better on.”

Ferguson predicted many students “will be quite pleased” that the new SAT will no longer require an essay. The SAT, which now includes a mandatory 25-minute essay, will in its new version have a 50-minute optional essay.

For the ACT, there is a 30-minute optional essay.

Ferguson said she usually advises students who take the ACT to choose the essay option. That enables them to apply to more schools because many selective colleges require the essay for students who take the ACT. It is likely that many colleges will require students to take the SAT essay too.

What about test preparation? The College Board, which oversees the SAT, said in its announcement Wednesday that it would sponsor free test-prep through the online Khan Academy Web site. College Board President David Coleman said this measure would reduce inequities because wealthy families often pay for private test-prep to help students get better scores.

At Hayfield Secondary, 30 percent of the school’s 2,800 students come from families with income low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Ferguson said she is a fan of the Khan Academy. But she said there is no shortage of help for those who want to prepare for the college admission tests.

“We have lots of free preparation available for students,” she said, including free practice tests and an online prep class. How many take advantage of this?

“Some do,” Ferguson said. “Some decide about 48 hours before they take the test that they should probably start doing something.”

Ferguson said she hopes the new SAT --with fewer tricks and obscure vocabulary words --lives up to the College Board’s goal of helping more kids go to college.

“I’m all for college access and making things less confusing for kids,” she said. “The whole college process is confusing enough. The more straightforward we can make the process, the better.”

It’s worth noting that the SAT is the preferred test of most college-bound students in the Washington area, but the ACT is gaining ground fast. The ACT also is more widely used across the country. Colleges generally will accept either one. Some don’t require any test admission test scores.

Here are several other takes on the SAT news.

**Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said time will tell whether the test revisions and free test prep from the Khan Academy help the College Board accomplish its sweeping equity goals.

“Their argument is this is going to level the playing field,” Hess said. “They’ll provide the materials, provide support, people will know what’s on the test.” The notion, Hess said, is to reduce the edge enjoyed by some students from privileged families. These students have benefited from knowledge about the test that less-affluent peers don’t have. “Look, that’s not unreasonable,” Hess said. “I suspect there’s something to that.”

But Hess added that these equity goals have been proclaimed before. “Each time they’ve revamped [the SAT], they’ve promised that the new test was better, fairer, less subject to gaming. It’s not like this is the first time they’ve suggested they can do this. We’ll see.”

His conclusion: “There’s ways to get an advantage on almost any test if you have the time and money. I’d be really surprised if this is the unique exception to that rule.”

**Nathan Brostrom, executive vice president of business operations for the University of California, who is a member of the College Board’s governing board, said the revisions square with the university’s mission of increasing access and opportunity. The new test, he said, will be “much more relevant. ... I love example of getting rid of the “SAT words.”

Brostrom said he is the father of five teenagers and some of them have taken private test-prep classes in an effort to raise their SAT scores. But he said he approves of the goal of “trying to eliminate any kind of advantage kids can get from high-cost test preparation.”

**Jon L. Erickson, president of the ACT, said “there’s no easy fix” to the problem that test scores generally correlate with family income. “I know people hope there is,” he said. “And I don’t know what it is. We’ve spent a lot of time trying to tear that apart.”

**Donald Kamentz, managing director of college initiatives for YES Prep charter schools in Houston, who is on an SAT committee of the College Board, said his schools offer test prep through a partnership with the private company Princeton Review. “My gut tells me, right now, we will probably still continue to do some deliberate and intentional test prep,” he said. But he said the free Khan Academy tutorials could be woven into the YES Prep program.

Kamentz said students will benefit from the College Board’s effort to produce a more straightforward test. “With the redesign, they’re being open and transparent,” he said, “removing the mystique.”

**Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, said: “The College Board’s failure to tackle the SAT’s historic weaknesses means that more schools will go test-optional.... The truth is no one needs the SAT, either ‘old’ or ‘new.”

**Henry R. Broaddus, associate provost for enrollment and dean of admission at the College of William & Mary, said: “We support the redesign of the SAT, and we believe that both the style and the content of the test must be assessed regularly and updated periodically.... Efforts to insulate the redesigned SAT from the impact of test-taking tricks and strategies, which are disproportionately less known to students from low-income backgrounds, are especially welcome. No longer will some students be encountering for the first time a set of multiple-choice questions in which guessing incorrectly is penalized more severely than not answering at all.”

**Barbara A. Gill, assistant vice president for undergraduate admissions at the University of Maryland in College Park, who is a College Board trustee, said: “I believe it’s going to be a stronger test, and I believe it will continue to be relevant for us.”

**Greg W. Roberts, dean of admission for the University of Virginia, asked to assess the significance of the revisions, said: “Hard to say at this point. Could be pretty significant, but the devil is in the details.”

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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