Like millions of college-bound juniors, Tatiana Davidson faces a stressful question this fall with an unusually tricky set of possible answers: Which college admissions exam should she take?
Her multiple choices came into sharper focus this week with the debut of a major revision to the preliminary college test known as the PSAT/NMSQT. The options are:
A) The current version of the SAT, with a maximum score of 2400;
B) The new version, to debut in March, with a maximum of 1600;
C) The ACT, more widely used nationwide, with a top mark of 36; or
D) Some combination of the above.
None of the choices is wrong, although many worry about picking the right test in the quest for entry to super-selective colleges. Davidson’s solution is a triple dose of testing: “I’m taking the new and the old and the ACT,” she said. “I’m taking them all. It’s more chances to get a good result.”
The 16-year-old, a junior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md., spent Wednesday morning taking the PSAT/NMSQT. That exam, which does not count for college admissions, is meant to help students prepare for the SAT. Juniors with superb scores on the preliminary test also can qualify for National Merit scholarships and other awards.
The revised PSAT/NMSQT — which more than 3 million sophomores and juniors nationwide will take this month — was highly anticipated because it provides a preview of the first overhaul to the SAT in a decade. The changes have prompted a scramble among college-bound students caught in the transition year.
Previously, they had a simple choice akin to Coke vs. Pepsi: SAT or ACT?
Now, for one high school class, it is far more complex. High school juniors can still take the old SAT through January. But the new version will be very different.
The SAT often has been seen as more difficult and abstract, with roots in an exam that once sought to measure intellectual “aptitude.” The ACT has been viewed as a more straightforward measure of academic achievement.
But the College Board, which owns the SAT, is seeking to bring its test more in line with what students are actually learning in school. With the arrival of the revised SAT, the penalty for guessing will disappear, and the required essay will become optional. It will have more algebra and less geometry. There will be no need to study flashcards with words such as “obsequious,” “propinquity,” and “lachrymose,” the College Board said, because the revision puts less focus on fancy vocabulary and more on analytical reasoning.
“There are no surprises. There are no tricks,” said Cyndie Schmeiser, chief of assessment for the College Board, who previously worked for the rival ACT. “Everything that’s in the test has fundamentally been shown through research to matter for kids, for readiness and success. What we’re measuring is what students are learning in their classroom every day.”
That is appealing to students such as Thomas Hughes, 17, also a junior at Richard Montgomery High. He took the PSAT/NMSQT Wednesday, too. Based on that test, Hughes said he believes the College Board accomplished its aim. “A lot of the questions I felt like were common sense. You could figure it out logically. . . . This new SAT, I would say it’s close to what we see on a county exam.”
Hughes lamented that college-bound students are forced to take “an absurd number of standardized tests.” He said he is attracted to those for which he doesn’t have to prep much. His choice: He’s taking the ACT this month. He also will give the new SAT a shot in March.
Some don’t like the changes to the SAT.
“I personally prefer the old format,” said Sindhu Iyer, 16, a classmate of Hughes and Davidson. She disdains standardized testing, preferring other forms of assessment that reward writing skill. But she is resigned to doing enough “raw repetition” of sample test questions to be ready for the SAT when she takes it in November and January.
Iyer said the timing of the rollout of the new SAT creates extra challenges for high school juniors who want to take their preferred admission test more than once to ensure the best possible score. “It’s kind of unfair for them to just throw this at us,” she said.
About 1.9 million students in each graduating class take the ACT, and about 1.7 million take the SAT. But many remain unaware of the testing flux.
At Chantilly High School in Fairfax County, Va., Madison Barry, 16, a junior, said Wednesday she had no idea the SAT was changing. She plans to take SAT prep classes later in the school year.
Barry, interviewed after taking the PSAT, said she found its math to be tougher than the level she took as a sophomore, especially a section that required her to make calculations purely by hand.
“This year was a lot more difficult,” she said. “I don’t know how they expected us to solve it without a calculator.”
The College Board is providing free SAT prep lessons online through a partnership with the Khan Academy, a nonprofit educational organization, in an effort to ease the transition and help students whose families don’t have money to spend on private tutoring.
Affluent parents continue to seek every possible edge in the annual college admissions frenzy, keenly aware that some top schools turn down 10 or more applicants for every one admitted. Parents can’t change their children’s transcripts. But many said they believe they can influence, through investment in tutoring, whether their children get something close to a 36 on the ACT or a 1600 or a 2400 on the SAT.
Bruce Reed, a test-prep consultant in California, said some families are “freaked out, maybe unnecessarily so,” about the testing choices.
Reed said the current SAT is, at this point, “not a great choice for most students” unless they are gifted test takers.
“If you can go in this fall and knock out a 2300, more power to you,” he said. “If you’re not one of those kids, you probably shouldn’t be testing in the fall of your junior year anyway.”
In some ways, the revision to the SAT makes it more similar to the ACT. But differences remain. The ACT has a science section; the SAT doesn’t. The ACT will have more geometry than the revised SAT. It is also a bit shorter; not counting breaks, total testing time for the ACT with the essay option is 3 hours and 35 minutes. The revised SAT, including the essay, takes 3 hours and 50 minutes.
“They’re not identical, but they’re essentially doing the same thing now,” said Phil Pine, an educational consultant in Montgomery County, Md. Pine said the convergence should enable students to prepare for both simultaneously. “We’re arming them with the same methods for both tests,” he said.