College Board drops essay portion of SAT
The College Board unveiled a sweeping redesign of the SAT test on Wednesday that scraps the essay requirement and ushers in other changes aimed at making the test more relevant to what students study in college and less susceptible to gaming through expensive test-prep courses that favor the wealthy.
Starting in the spring of 2016, the iconic 1,600 perfect score known to generations past will return, because the essay that’s been a requirement since 2005 will be dropped. In addition, students will no longer lose points for guessing wrong. Obscure vocabulary words — think “diurnal” or “pellucid” — will be pushed aside in favor of a more useful lexicon.
And the College Board essentially will start competing with the test preparation industry, offering free test preparation materials from Khan Academy, a widely admired nonprofit.
Several college admissions officials, high school counselors, and advocates for low-income students praised many of the changes as an acknowledgment of deep flaws in a test that has helped shape the futures of millions of young people.
The SAT is “just a piece [of the admissions file], but if that piece that comes as part of the student’s set of credentials . . . more authentically measures what they’ve been studying, then that is certainly going to be valuable for us,” said Jane B. Brown, vice president for enrollment management at Northeastern University.
The changes, the first major overhaul of the test since the essay was added in 2005, were announced by David Coleman, who became president of the not-for-profit College Board a year and a half ago. The College Board runs the exam, which 1.6 million students take each year.
In a speech in Austin, Texas, Coleman was blunt about some of the flaws of the SAT, which faces increasingly stiff competition from the rival ACT.
Only 20 percent of teachers see standardized tests as a fair measure of their students’ work, he said. And he took responsibility for the explosion of the test preparation industry that charges students thousands of dollars for coaching and leaves behind those who can’t afford to pay.
“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,” said Coleman, an architect of the national Common Core standards for K-12 education adopted by 45 states. “If we believe that assessment must be a force for equity and excellence, it’s time to shake things up.”
In addition to offering help from Khan Academy, he said the SAT will provide students with more information on what to expect when they show up on test day to “get rid of the sense of mystery and dismantle the advantages that people perceive in using costly test preparation to find out the ‘secrets of the SAT.’ ”
While fee waivers for low-income students are not new, he said, students will receive the waivers directly instead of having to go through their guidance counselor, an extra bureaucratic step.
Coleman used “synthesis” as an example of a vocabulary word that might appear on the redesigned SAT — a word that is not obscure but layered enough to require students to summon what they’ve learned from a rich variety of reading.
The new SAT will also focus on a more limited range of math topics most relevant to typical college classes and career training. Calculators will be banned from some of the math sections.
In choosing reading passages, the College Board will favor classic texts like the Declaration of Independence and the speeches of Martin Luther King.
The essay will become optional — and be scored separately — because it has not proved predictive of college success and has received mixed reviews from college admissions officers, Coleman said.
Several educators, however, said Wednesday that they like the essay, calling it the only piece of writing in a college admissions package that they know students wrote themselves without help from adults. Brown said Northeastern officials will consider whether to require applicants to take the essay portion of the SAT.
Brad MacGowan, a longtime college and career counselor at Newton North High School, called the changes the first steps in the right direction he has seen from the College Board in years.
For example, students are taught in school to write in a way that is clear and understandable, he said, not to use fancy words for their own sake. And the penalty of one-quarter point that the SAT currently deducts for incorrect answers feeds into the idea that students need to learn special tricks, he added.
“One thing I never liked about test prep is students sitting there learning test-taking strategies that are only going to help them on this SAT, they are not going to help them in other areas in their life,” MacGowan said. “So if test prep became more like actual education, I think that’s a good thing.”
Justin Strasburger, who works with low-income students from Boston, said several of the changes could help disadvantaged students compete with better-prepared peers. He called the decision to offer resources from Khan Academy “fantastic.”
“If a student is motivated but in the wrong situation in an underperforming high school, they are going to have access to something that will help mitigate that for free — and not have to spend the thousands of dollars on an SAT prep course,” said Strasburger of the nonprofit Bottom Line, which helps students get into and succeed in college.