The College Board announced this week that it is going to make sweeping changes to the SAT beginning in 2016.
Criticized both for giving an advantage to wealthy kids who can afford expensive test prep courses and also for creating extreme anxiety for students due to the unpredictability of what will be tested, the SAT has long been in need of a makeover.
According to The College Board, the test will remain predictive of how a student will perform in college, but instead of testing knowledge of arcane vocabulary words, reading comprehension of random passages and the ability to solve high-level math problems, the new SAT will test whether students understand words that they’re likely to encounter in college (like “party” when used in a political sense), it will test comprehension of founding documents and texts (like the Bill of Rights or Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech), and it will test fundamental math skills that students need to perform well in college and in life, like algebra, ratios and percentages, as well as test students’ handling of more advanced, complex equations.
As a former college counselor, I can tell you that this is great news for kids who work hard in school and get good grades. The only kids for whom these changes should be a problem are those who are smart but lazy (the ones who skate by in school doing little work and getting average grades, but then rock the SAT because they’re inherently good problem solvers), and those who aren't that smart but are good at memorization (the kids who don’t take any advanced classes but sit at home memorizing the dictionary).
For the rest of the country’s college-bound teens – and particularly for those who work their butts off to get good grades but crumble under the anxiety of the SAT, this is a game changer.
Why? Because this version of the test is more focused on content, and on skills learned in the classroom.
Can you actually understand what you've read and support your answer with evidence?
Can you think critically and reason?
Are you able to approach a problem and figure out how to solve it?
Any kid who has done well in a rigorous curriculum at a decent school should, presumably, answer yes to all of these questions. And if the test is really going to be the way it’s been described, then I would imagine that a lot more kids can expect to do extremely well on the SATs going forward.
The question then, is how will all of this change the role of the SAT in college admissions?
In its current form, the SAT is designed to produce a range of scores; questions are written in such a way that only a few of the best test takers (or those who have paid a lot of money to learn how to game the test) can answer the hardest questions correctly. Because of that, the SAT has served as something of a gatekeeper at the most elite colleges and universities.
There are lots and lots of kids out there who have straight As, but there aren't nearly enough spots at Ivies and the like to accommodate all of them. However, of those straight A students, only a small percentage have a perfect or near perfect score on the SAT. As a result, the SAT acts as a sort of weeding device for college admissions officers; fair or not, it’s a justification for rejecting all of those otherwise amazing kids.
So what will happen when the SAT starts measuring what is actually taught in school? If all of those straight A students start killing the SAT, how will colleges distinguish them from one another? What will become the new basis for rejecting otherwise amazing kids?
It seems to me that it can only come from two places; writing ability and extracurricular activities. Writing ability I think would make sense – I have seen more than my share of students who do extremely well in school, but can’t put a proper paragraph together to save their lives. Yet, while The College Board is making changes to the writing section of the SAT so that it actually tests one’s ability to write, the section is going to become optional – it will be up to colleges to require it of their applicants, and I hope that they will.
I worry, however, about a greater emphasis being put on extracurricular activities. I wrote a few weeks ago about the stress students feel to become specialists in a sport or activity in order to make their college applications stand out , and I think that we’re at a breaking point in terms of how much kids are piling on to their schedules every single day. But if extracurriculars become the make or break for college admissions, it’s only going to get worse.
I applaud The College Board for trying to make the SAT more fair, for trying to reduce the anxiety that students feel, and for (hopefully) eliminating the need to spend so much time and money preparing for questions you can’t anticipate.
These are huge steps in the right direction for lowering the anxiety levels of high school juniors around the country. My plea to colleges is that they don’t undo all of that good work by adding back extra layers of stress to make up for it.
Originally published on ModernMom