Live from SXSWEdu: #NewSATs or No SATs?

The big news coming out of SXSWEdu Wednesday was the New SAT. It even has a hashtag: #NewSAT.

The changes to the test taken by millions of students each year, which will start in 2016 with today’s 9th graders, are, at first glance, puzzling. The vocabulary section will be simplified, with fewer “gotcha” words. The math section will go into greater depth on fewer and more predictable topics. The reading section will involve more nonfiction and technical selections, including charts and graphs, and will be more predictable as well, with greatest-hits selections from US history like the Declaration of Independence and I Have a Dream.

Oh, and the essay section is now optional. After generations of testing, research has found that essay scores on the SATs are not predictive of anything important, and college admissions officers couldn’t agree on whether it was useful.

There are two big goals with the new SAT, as College Board director David Coleman had it at today’s announcement. At first blush, I don’t think it accomplishes either of them.

The first goal is to better align with what students are learning in high school and what they need to know in the workplace. Here’s a point-by-point comparison between the changes on the test and the Common Core curriculum, which College Board director David Coleman was very involved in designing–for example, less literature, more nonfiction.

Problem: the Common Core hasn’t been officially implemented yet in most states, yet it’s stirring up quite a bit of backlash. Nor was it tested or piloted. Who knows where it will be in five or 10 years?  Will the test change again then?

Problem #2 : Seriously, you made the essay question optional? When verbal communication is the number one skill that employers look for?  If you can’t devise a free response question that is useful or predictive, maybe you are not trying hard enough. Look at your own AP English exams or the UK GCEs  if you need inspiration.

Employers aren’t clamoring for students who can pick the right answer from a given list, especially when the new SAT eliminates the penalty for blind guessing.

The second, and laudable goal is to make the exam more equitable by eliminating the influence of costly test preparation companies (which don’t, by the way, actually raise scores very much). The new test is designed to be both simpler to study for and harder to game. The College Board is also partnering with Khan Academy to provide free digital test prep–more on that soon so watch this space.

If you really want to make college admissions more equitable, here’s an idea: try getting rid of the SATs. Recently William Hiss of Bates College published a study looking at outcomes for 123,000 students and alumni at a wide range of institutions. These institutions belong to the growing group of 800 out of the nation’s 3000 colleges and universities that make the SATs optional for admission.


Most people who don’t submit their SAT scores, not surprisingly, have poor SAT scores. They are more likely to be first-generation college students, minorities, Pell Grant recipients, women and students with learning differences. Schools who go test-optional tend to get more diverse students as a result.

The bottom line: “in a wide variety of settings, non-submitters are outperforming their standardized testing.” Hiss found few significant differences between students who submitted SATs and those who did not. “Across the study, non-submitters … earned Cumulative GPAs that were only .05 lower than submitters, 2.83 versus 2.88. The difference in their graduation rates was .6%.”

Maybe the next step in the #NewSATs should be making the whole thing optional. 



POSTED BY Anya Kamenetz ON March 5, 2014

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