College Board Redesigns SAT Exam Making Essay Portion Optional

The College Board will make the essay portion of its SAT admissions test optional starting in 2016 and eliminate esoteric vocabulary words, a move likely to be embraced by high school students and their parents.

Scoring will return to a maximum of 1,600 points for math and evidence-based reading and writing, and the optional essay will be scored separately, the College Board, which administers the test, said yesterday. Students will need to show critical-thinking skills by analyzing science and history texts.

The SAT’s overhaul addresses concerns from educators and families about costly preparation for standardized tests and that they “have become disconnected” from high school work, said David Coleman, president and chief executive officer of the College Board. Most U.S. colleges require either the SAT or ACT to help determine admission qualifications. The College Board added a mandatory essay in 2005.

“We’ve also been listening to students and their families for whom these tests are often mysterious and filled with unproductive anxiety,” Coleman said in a speech yesterday in Austin, Texas. “They are skeptical that either the SAT or the ACT allows them to show their best work.”

Losing Ground

Last year, for the first time, the SAT lost ground to ACT Inc., in the number of test takers. Also, 4,400 fewer students in the high school Class of 2013 took the SAT compared with the previous class, crimping potential revenue for the New York-based College Board. The ACT has an optional essay.

“It’s disappointing that they seem not to be asking what’s best for education and what’s best for students,” said Pat Hayashi, who served as a College Board trustee from 2000 to 2004 and is a former associate president of the University of California. “They are clearly asking, ‘How do we keep up with the ACT?’”

The SAT’s verbal components will no longer be peppered with obscure words that students may not have heard before and are unlikely to hear again, and the text will focus on words that students will use consistently in college and beyond. Points will no longer be deducted for incorrect answers.

The math portion will focus on problem solving and data analysis, algebra, and what the College Board calls a “passport to advanced math.”

Fundamental Flaws

The changes don’t address the fundamental flaws with the exam: its weakness in predicting college performance compared with high school grades, said Bob Schaeffer, a spokesman for FairTest, a Boston-based nonprofit group critical of standardized testing.

“The College Board recognizes that its 2005 version of new Coke was a failure in the marketplace and reformulated it to match its primary competitor, ACT,” Schaeffer said in an interview. “None of these changes go to the central issues with the test, which is: Who needs it?”

From the start, the essay portion has been a lightning rod for criticism for the SAT. Many college admissions officers failed to find that the essay added value to the prediction of writing in college, John McGrath, a College Board spokesman, said in an e-mail.

“We paid no attention to it,” said Ted O’Neill, who served as dean of admissions at the University of Chicago for 20 years before stepping down in 2009. Admissions officers instead evaluated the essays students submitted with their applications.

“It was representative writing and more like the kind of writing we’d ask for in our classes,” O’Neill said.

‘Completely Artificial’

Les Perelman, a writing instructor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been a critic of the essay since its inception. On MIT’s OpenCourseWare website, he calls it “a completely artificial and unnatural piece of writing.”

Perelman advises students to fill both pages and use “big words” such as plethora and myriad, even if they have the wrong connotation.

“Details count,” according to the website. “Factual accuracy doesn’t.”

Jon Erickson, president of ACT’s Education Division, said he was hoping for changes “a little more outside the box” and was surprised there was just a “tip of the hat” to science.

“Most of what they’ve said are things that are already in our rear-view mirror,” Erickson said in a phone interview.

SAT History

Developed by a Princeton psychology professor, the SAT, then called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, was introduced in 1926. The Ivy League and other elite colleges in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern U.S. encouraged the test’s use in admissions to identify talented students. Most of its early takers applied to private schools. The ACT, developed by a University of Iowa education professor to measure practical knowledge, started in 1959 as an alternative to the SAT. The ACT was initially taken by students mostly in the Midwest and Mountain states, while the SAT dominated the East and West coast markets.

“It’s part of a long-running development I’m whole-heartedly in favor of, taking the SAT away from its roots in aptitude testing and moving it into the realm of achievement testing,” said Nicholas Lemann, who wrote about the exam in his 1999 book, “The Big Test: The Secret History of American Meritocracy.” “It sends a signal to high school kids: If you want to get a good SAT score, study hard and get good grades.”

The College Board generates revenue from exam fees and by selling the names and information about student test-takers to colleges, which then send information to potential applicants. The group charges $51 for the SAT and $89 for Advanced Placement exams and sells other services.

Test Prep

As a counter to the test-prep industry whose costly offerings are out of reach of many low-income students, the College Board, working with the nonprofit Khan Academy, will expand its range of free SAT study materials.

Students who meet income qualifications to take the test at no cost can apply to four colleges for free, without having to ask the schools for fee waivers.

More details about the exam will be available in April. Select sites will offer computer-based testing, and decisions about locations are being determined.

A total of 1.66 million students in the high school class of 2013 took the SAT. ACT, based in Iowa City, Iowa, reported 1.8 million test takers, an 8 percent increase from the previous year.

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