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As SAT enters a new era this week, students say the exam has improved

College Board President David Coleman at his office in Manhattan. (Photo by Yana Paskova/For The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — The SAT’s infamous guessing penalty is gone. Its vocabulary is less arcane, minus words like “lachrymose” and “obsequious” that students tended to memorize and then forget. Its essay is now optional. The perfect score — set in 2005 at 2400 — is reverting to the iconic standard from generations past: 1600.

But perhaps the most important change to the retooled college admission test that debuts this week for hundreds of thousands of students nationwide lies in its approach to what they learn in high school. The new version of the SAT aims more than ever to measure core skills taught in school, such as reading charts, analyzing evidence and applying algebra in mathematical problems.

The College Board, which owns the 90-year-old test, sought to purge the tricky questions — akin to brain teasers — that were vestiges of what used to be called a “scholastic aptitude” measurement. The theory behind aptitude testing was to find innate potential in students regardless of where they went to school. Now the SAT is officially described as an achievement test meant to reward those who study hard in class.

“It most resembles the work that kids are already doing in the classroom,” College Board President David Coleman said this week in in an interview with The Washington Post at his office here in New York. “I think the old SAT was a departure from kids’ everyday work, in their schoolwork. Evidently. It was almost universally felt to be so.”

Meet the man behind the new SAT

The new SAT was rolled out Wednesday in schools in the District of Columbia, Connecticut, New Hampshire, selected New York City schools, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Jose, and in Florida’s Hillsborough and Seminole counties. On Saturday morning, 277,000 students from across the country are scheduled to sit for the test. In all, 463,000 students are expected to take the new SAT this month.

Hugo Barrillon and Jordana Graveley, juniors at Conard High School in West Hartford, Conn., called the revision an improvement. They took the SAT Wednesday morning during school along with 40,000 other 11th-graders in Connecticut, with testing fees fully paid by the state. Both also had taken the old version in January.

“I noticed that in the reading, there were a lot more ‘evidence-based’ questions,” said Barrillon, 16. “You would have to find a source from the text to support your answer to the previous question. That was definitely different.” Barrillon said he believed the new test reflected his studies more than the old one.

“It’s a lot more focused on what we have learned in school,” Gravely, also 16, agreed. One of the reading passages, she said, was a document that covered material familiar from history lessons. “The vocab was really actually something that you would encounter in real life,” she said. The old SAT penalized students for incorrect answers, to deter guessing. But the new SAT eliminates that rule. “It’s a lot less of learning how to take the test than the old one was,” Graveley said.

Bruce Reed, a test-preparation consultant with Compass Education Group, based in Larkspur, Calif., said student perceptions about the new SAT matter less, in the end, than whether the test yields reliable and valid results to help admissions officers do their jobs.

“Isn’t it ultimately about the colleges?” he said. “It’s a hollow victory if it’s just a test that feels better when you’re taking it.”

The revision has been years in the making. Coleman, one of the architects of the Common Core State Standards, was given a mandate to rethink the admission test when he took the helm of the College Board in 2012. The Common Core spells out what students should learn in math and English language arts from kindergarten through high school. Those standards, and the assessments connected to them, were widely adopted but have proven politically controversial. The College Board considered Coleman’s expertise an asset as the nonprofit organization grappled with discontent about its marquee test.

The last overhaul of the SAT, in 2005, added a writing section with a required 25-minute essay, worth a maximum of 800 points, to the math and critical reading sections, also worth up to 800 points each. In ensuing years, the SAT lost market share to the rival ACT admission test.

The ACT, based in Iowa, assesses English, reading, math and science, with an optional essay. It has long been perceived as a straightforward achievement test, with slightly higher time pressure per question than the SAT. It does not have a guessing penalty, and it has never purported to measure aptitude. Colleges now accept either test equally, and in 2012, the ACT surpassed the SAT in usage. In the nation’s Class of 2015, about 1.9 million students took the ACT, compared to 1.7 million who took the SAT.

The SAT, now the No. 2 college test, pushes to reclaim supremacy

“One cannot ignore we’re in competition with the ACT,” Coleman acknowledged. But he said that was not the main driver of the SAT changes.

Coleman unveiled his vision for the new SAT in March 2014. He wanted a transparent test, stripped of trickery and grounded firmly in what students learn. He also announced that the College Board would team with the nonprofit Khan Academy to offer students free online tutorials for the SAT, a measure aiming to reduce the advantage of families wealthy enough to hire private test-preparation consultants. Since June, 900,000 students have registered with Khan for SAT practice and have completed 39 million problems, Coleman said.

The old SAT took 3 hours and 45 minutes. The new version is 3 hours, plus another 50 minutes for those who opt to write an essay. The two core sections are math and “evidence-based reading and writing.” Most of the questions are multiple-choice, but some math questions require students to write in an answer. The math section focuses on algebra, data analysis and fluency with complex equations and expressions in preparation for advanced math.

Calculators, previously allowed throughout the math section, are now barred from certain portions of the new test. There also is less emphasis on geometry.

College Board releases preview of new SAT exam questions

Some prominent universities in recent years — including Wake Forest and George Washington — have dropped requirements for applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores. Critics of the tests say that they are a needless barrier to college access for disadvantaged students, and that transcripts and other information can tell colleges all they need to know about an applicant’s academic potential.

But the large majority of selective colleges, in the Ivy League and beyond, continue to require submission of scores. They will be watching closely how the revised SAT performs its mission of helping to predict college success. That could take years to learn.

“We’re quite optimistic that it will be at least as good as the old test,” said William R. Fitzsimmons, longtime dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard University. “But we have to wait and see.”

Fitzsimmons predicted that many students will cheer getting rid of flash-card vocabulary — “words that appear only once in your lifetime, but really have no connection to what you encounter in college or after college.”

Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale, said getting ready for college should never be about tricks or last-minute cramming for a test.

“I believe that the redesigned SAT is on the right path in its transparency and openness, and that it sends the clear signal that if you work hard and achieve, we in higher education will work to open doors for you,” Quinlan said.

Barbara Jenkins, superintendent of schools in Orange County, Fla., which serves tens of thousands of students from low-income families, said she is “most excited” about changes to the SAT that suggest its payoffs are not reserved only for the elite or for those who can afford a prep course. The message, she said, is that practice pays off for anybody. “There’s not some anointing that you’re ‘smart’ or ‘not smart,'” Jenkins said. “Instead, it’s something you work toward to open opportunity.”

Education is replete with inequities, from preschool through college, with students from affluent backgrounds enjoying far more educational resources; there are strong correlations between standardized test scores and family income.

Coleman said he is mindful that those inequities are stubborn. But he said the SAT’s revision, coupled with the Khan Academy initiative, gives the College Board a strong reply to critics who say that privilege can purchase an edge in opportunity.

“You say ‘SAT’ and people say, ‘Well what about the test prep?'” Coleman said. He said that many people wonder “how can a challenge be fair if the tools of practice are costly, and if there’s a sense of mystery and that some people can sell you the secrets.”

The first step to reform was clear, he said: “I had to get rid of the secrets.”