SAT to drop essay requirement and return to top score of 1600 in redesign of admission test

The College Board is changing the SAT again. The Post's Nick Anderson explains some things you might not know about the college admissions test and how it has evolved—starting with the meaning behind the letters "SAT." (Davin Coburn and Kate M. Tobey/The Washington Post)

The SAT college admission test will no longer require a timed essay, will dwell less on fancy vocabulary and will return to the familiar 1600-point scoring scale in a major overhaul intended to open doors to higher education for students who are now shut out.

The second redesign of the SAT this century, announced Wednesday, will take effect in early 2016, as today’s ninth graders are sitting for their college admission tests.

Skeptics questioned whether a new format will be any more successful than previous efforts to use the standardized test in a campaign for college access, in part because the test’s scores historically have correlated with family income. They also point out that the 88-year-old SAT in recent years has slipped behind the rival ACT — a shorter exam with an optional essay — in total student customers.

Through the revisions, the College Board aims to strip many of the tricks out of a test now taken by more than 1.5 million students in each year’s graduating high school class. The College Board also pledged to offer new test-preparation tutorials for free online, enabling students to bypass pricey SAT-prep classes previously available mostly to affluent families looking to give their children an edge.

Out in the redesign will be “SAT words” that have long prompted anxious students to cram with flashcards, as the test will now focus on vocabulary words that are widely used in college and career. The College Board hasn’t yet cited examples of words deemed too obscure, but “punctilious,” “phlegmatic” and “occlusion” are three tough ones in an official study guide.

View a comparison of the current SAT with the redesigned SAT.

Out, too, will be a much-reviled rule that deducts a quarter-point for each wrong answer to multiple-choice questions, deterring random guesses. Also gone: The 2400-point scale begun nine years ago with the debut of the required essay. The essay will become optional.

Back will be one of the iconic numbers of 20th-century America: The perfect SAT score, crystalline without a comma, returns to 1600.

With these and other changes — such as asking students to analyze documents key to the nation’s founding — College Board officials said they want to make the SAT more accessible, straightforward and grounded in what is taught in high school.

“It is time for an admissions assessment that makes it clear that the road to success is not last-minute tricks or cramming, but the learning students do over years,” David Coleman, the College Board’s president, said in a speech Wednesday in Austin. The SAT, he said, “will no longer stand apart from . . . daily studies and learning.”

At the same time, Coleman fired a broadside at a test-prep industry that sells books, flashcards and courses to help students raise their scores in the hopes of gaining an edge in admissions and scholarships.

Coleman said the New York-based organization will team with the nonprofit Khan Academy, which delivers free tutorials in math and other subjects via a popular Web site of the same name, to provide free SAT prep for the world.

“The College Board cannot stand by while some test-prep providers intimidate parents at all levels of income into the belief that the only way they can secure their child’s success is to pay for costly test preparation and coaching,” Coleman said. “If we believe that assessment must be a force for equity and excellence, it’s time to shake things up.”

Coleman also repeated a pledge he made at the White House in January: The College Board will deliver four college application fee waivers to each test-taker meeting income eligibility requirements, allowing them to apply to schools for free.

Coleman, head of the College Board since fall 2012, previously was a key figure in the development of the new Common Core State Standards. Those standards, which set national expectations for what students should learn in math and English from kindergarten through 12th grade, have been fully adopted in 45 states and the District. Coleman’s vision for the SAT, with emphasis on analysis of texts from a range of disciplines as well as key math and language concepts, appears to echo the philosophy underlying the Common Core and could help the test track more closely with what students are learning in the nation’s classrooms.

Whether the College Board can break the link between test scores and economic class is the subject of much debate.

“There’s no reason to think that fiddling with the test is in any way going to increase its fairness,” said Joseph A. Soares, a Wake Forest University sociologist. He said high school grades are a far better measure of college potential. Tests, he argued, needlessly screen out disadvantaged students.

Argelia Rodriguez, president and chief executive of the D.C. College Access Program, which provides college counseling in public high schools, said the College Board was taking a “step in the right direction” by promoting a test that might be less intimidating. But she said financial aid and other issues are far more important to low-income families. “There’s a lot more to access than just test-taking,” she said.

The redesign follows a challenging decade for a standardized test launched in 1926 that has wielded enormous influence in American education from the Great Depression through the era of No Child Left Behind. Advocates say the SAT provides a common yardstick for academic merit; critics call it a tool to protect the interests of the elite.

Originally the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the SAT shed that name years ago along with the devilish antonym and analogy questions that were a staple of what was once called the “verbal” section. It underwent a major change in 2005 that drew mixed reviews.

That year, a writing section, worth up to 800 points, was added with multiple-choice questions and a 25-minute essay. Critics complained that too little time was given for essay revisions and that assignments did not reflect the level of analysis expected in college. Some college admissions officers also were lukewarm.

“As a predictor of student success, a 25-minute essay isn’t going to tell us a great deal,” said Stephen J. Handel, associate vice president of undergraduate admissions for the University of California.

And in recent years, more and more students were gravitating toward the rival ACT exam. The SAT has long been dominant on the West Coast, in the Northeast and in the Washington region. The ACT, launched in 1959 and overseen by an organization based in Iowa, attracts more students in the middle of the country and the South.

The two tests overlap in mission but diverge in style and content, with the ACT traditionally measuring achievement (including a science section) and the SAT measuring thinking skills. But the ACT has made inroads on the SAT’s turf, and many students now take both. In 2012, the ACT surpassed the SAT in the number of reported test-takers.

ACT President Jon L. Erickson said he was “a little underwhelmed” by the College Board’s announcement. “I appreciate and I’m glad they’re fixing their acknowledged flaws in their test,” he said.

Both exams also are facing challenges from the growing test-optional movement. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing lists about 800 colleges and universities that admit a substantial number of undergraduates without requiring them to submit SAT or ACT scores.

Among them is American University, which started the experiment in 2010. Now 18 percent of its applicants do not submit SAT or ACT scores.

“It’s gone up every year,” said Sharon Alston, AU’s vice provost for undergraduate enrollment. She said the university has not detected “any significant difference” in the performance of students who don’t submit test scores compared with those who do.

College Board officials, mindful of these developments, say the redesign has a larger purpose.

“We’re not just chasing market share here, I can assure you that,” said Shirley Ort, a top financial aid official at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, who is vice chair of the College Board’s governing board. “We want the SAT to be more than just an event that takes place in a test center. We think it can serve as a catalyst for student engagement.”

The redesign will beef up the essay, giving students who choose to take it 50 minutes to analyze evidence and explain how an author builds an argument. The rest of the test will be three hours. Currently the SAT takes three hours and 45 minutes.

The math section will tighten its focus on data analysis, problem solving, algebra and topics leading into advanced math. Calculators, now permitted throughout the math section, will be barred in some portions to help gauge math fluency.

The section now called “critical reading” will be merged with multiple-choice writing questions to form a new section called “evidence-based reading and writing.” Questions known as “sentence completion,” which in part assess vocabulary, will be dropped. Analysis of passages in science, history and social studies will be expanded.

And each version of the test will include a passage from documents crucial to the nation’s founding, or core civic texts from sources such as President Abraham Lincoln or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

When the test probes student vocabulary, the College Board said, it will focus on “words that are widely used in college and career.” Coleman cited “synthesis” as an example. “This is not an obscure word, but one students encounter everywhere,” he said.

Choosing such words could prove difficult. Carol Jago, a past president of the National Council of Teachers of English, who serves on a College Board advisory panel, said the test revisions would “reward students who take high school seriously, who are real readers, who write well.” She said she was loath to drop from the exam a word such as “egalitarian,” which appears in one College Board practice test. But she said: “Maybe we can live without ‘phlegmatic.’ ”

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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