Standardized Tests: The Times, They are a Changing (3/19/14)

Will revising the SAT simplify costly test prep and complex college admissions process?

On March 5, as anxious high school juniors across the country crammed for the March 8 SAT and countless high school seniors sat in limbo waiting for letters of college acceptance hinging on those SAT scores, president of the College Board, David Coleman, announced the almighty SAT will undergo its most comphrensive change since 2005.

Students won’t take the revamped SAT until spring 2016 but the College Board promises to provide a sneak peek at the overhauled exam next month.

Coleman said changes to the test include: reverting to its original scoring scale of 1600 from its current 2400, incorporating reading comprehension passages from “founding documents of America”—such as the Declaration of Independence—restricting calculator use on some math sections and making the essay optional.

The SAT is also bidding adieu to obscure vocabulary words. The College Board plans to replace current vocabulary test words like “prevaricator” and “sagacious” with words more likely to be found in college courses or the workplace, such as “synthesis” and “empirical.”

In addition, students will no longer be penalized a quarter point for wrong answers to multiple choice questions.

First administered in 1926 as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (now the Scholastic Assessment Test) and based loosely on a test developed to rank World War I soldiers, the SAT changes come as it continues to lose ground to its rival—the increasingly popular ACT (American College Test).

According to test prep authorities at the Princeton Review, 1.8 million students took the ACT last year compared to 1.7 million who took the SAT. The ACT concentrates on science and math, and many students agree it’s easier to comprehend as compared to the SAT’s focus on fancy vocabulary words and negative scoring for wrong answers.

I vaguely remember wandering into my high school’s cafeteria on a Saturday morning and taking what I think was the SAT. I know I never took a test prep course. My, how times have changed.

A few years ago as my older son prepared to take his college entrance exams, I bought enough test prep books to open my own bookstore. All the books claimed to significantly boost his test scores and looked really impressive lining the shelves of his bookcase—where they stayed.

During his test prep process I learned the SAT is offered only seven dates a year, a fact that surprised both of us. As a result, my son took his first SAT on his birthday—the morning after prom. I didn’t need a scientific calculator to predict the outcome.

Over the years, I’ve collected more books and boxes of flash cards containing words my younger son will probably never repeat but will need to memorize for his SAT before 2016.

As my second son starts his collegiate test preparations, I’m older but not any wiser. I confess, I’m still buying into the test prep trap. A few months ago, I sent my son to a costly weekend boot camp to learn the “tricks” to answering the SAT’s multiple choice questions. For two days, he learned how to guess the correct answer to certain questions and when to skip questions leaving those bubbles blank.

The tricks he learned won’t translate into practical life skills—unless, in the real world, he runs into tricksters who can be tamed with a No. 2 pencil.

The test prep industry is big business as estimates put its earnings above the $1 billion mark in the United States. Coleman hopes to change this and said the College Board seeks to eliminate expensive and elite test prep by partnering with Khan Academy, an educational website, to offer free online SAT test prep services to students across the socioeconomic spectrum.

My educated guess is the multimillion-dollar test prep industry will continue to thrive as long as parents like me will pay for perceived advantages in the college admissions crapshoot.

No one knows if the proposed changes to the SAT will be as beneficial as promised or if it will better measure academic intelligence and predict collegiate success.

All I know is the revised SAT arrives too late to benefit my son, so I’d better find those flashcards defining “prevaricator” and “sagacious.”


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