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The New SAT Changes -- The Good, the Bad and the Inconsequential

Here's the good news: Hardworking, capable students will find a way to succeed, regardless of their income, or the SAT's format. Because that's whatdo. Maybe now there will be even more free resources to help them.
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I've been running a boutique test prep company for about eight years, and ever since the College Board announced its 2016 SAT changes last week, I've been getting emails from parents. "Is this good news or bad news?" "Will these changes make the SAT more like what students do in school?" Sadly, the fact that anybody considers me any kind of authority on this means that my high-school fears have finally come true: I've officially become a super-nerd.

What the SAT is NOT
Before answering these questions, I find myself continually pointing out one misconception that's worth repeating here: The SAT isn't supposed to be like what students do in school. Colleges already have your grades for that.

The whole idea behind the SAT -- and the ACT, for that matter -- is that not everybody who's "smart" has good grades. Steve Jobs, for example, had a 2.65 GPA in high school. Some of my guidance counselor colleagues like to think of the SAT as a "Second Chance" or "Double Check." It gives a kid who perhaps had a bad year of grades another way to prove his or her capability, and it also provides validation for high grades. A 4.0 paired with a low SAT/ACT score suddenly looks less amazing.

The SAT isn't perfect, but what system is? Grades can be inflated, activities can be exaggerated and even invented, and applications and personal essays can be "gamed" by prep companies far more than the SAT can. None of these measures are meant to stand alone, but rather to combine into a package that paints a fuller picture of who the student is and how they'll do at a given college. So really the question should be "Will these changes make the SAT -- and by proxy the college admissions process -- better?"

Obviously, with the changes being two years out and therefore still nebulous, the lame answer is that we'll have to wait and see. But the TL;DR answer (the SAT does and likely still will encourage brevity) is this: Some of the changes seem good, some of the changes seem bad, but ultimately, few of the changes are going to make much of a difference.

First, the good changes

Fee Waivers and Lower Income Accessibility
The College Board pledges to provide up to four college application fee waivers to SAT-takers who qualify, and in general pave the way for more income-equal access to the test. Obviously, this is great, though you might be asking yourself, "Why don't they have this already?" Many schools do; most of my schools, regardless of the neighborhood they're in, already help in-need kids get fee waivers. But this new step certainly can't hurt. Even the publicity around the changes will hopefully help more kids become informed about the resources available to them. In theory, if even one more underprivileged student becomes able to take or retake the SAT and go to college, then these changes are at some level a victory. In practice, how much will the changes level the playing field? Not entirely, but they can't hurt.

Getting Rid of the Wrong Answer Penalty
After almost a century, the SAT will finally be eradicating the infamous quarter-point penalty for getting questions wrong. On a selfish note, my little company will miss the Wrong Answer Penalty, since it's an easy way to boost kids' scores and confidence just by straightening out the way they approached the test. But that's exactly why the Penalty should go. The test should be about the kid, not the companies.

Truthfully, because the Wrong Answer Penalty doesn't actually change scores that much (you'd theoretically get the same score by leaving the entire test blank as you would by guessing randomly), this change won't significantly affect strategy. The way to approach the SAT and ACT, which has never had a penalty, will still be the same: Slow down a bit, try to get as many RIGHT answers as you can and don't worry about the hard ones. The only difference is whether you madly fill in a bunch of random bubbles at the end (ACT) or just leave them blank (SAT). But many kids don't know this, and the Penalty mostly just serves to be scary and confusing, and thus is overdue for retirement.

Second, the changes that are well-intentioned, but aren't really as "sweeping" as some are making them out to be

Less Obscure Vocabulary
Vocabulary used to be a huge deal on the SAT. Used to, as in pre-2005, when the College Board killed the analogies section. A good move, because the analogies section was one of the most ethnically-skewed parts of the test. By the way, the SAT is not racist; it's classist, though this effectively amounts to the same thing, since we unfortunately still live in a country where socio-economic status is not colorblind... but I digress. In any case, "SAT Word" vocabulary is indeed a bit slanted towards students from certain backgrounds, so it's good that it was tempered.

Racist SAT Questions?


The operative tense here is tempered. The 2005 SAT update already effectively neutered the vocab leviathan. These days, sentence completions, the remaining vocab-focused SAT question type, only account for 19 of 67 questions in the critical reading section, so 29 percent of that score (excluding the 200 points you get just for showing up), which itself is only one third of the total SAT score. So already we're under 10 percent. Throw in the fact that only maybe half of these sentence completion words are what you could consider "obscure vocabulary," and you're looking at maybe 40-80 points out of 2400 that will be gained or lost by knowing "SAT Words." Not nothing, but not a deal-breaker.

Yet the 2016 changes promise to simplify vocabulary even more, focusing less on esoteric words like "esoteric," and more on school-related, contextual words like "synthesis" and "empirical." Besides the fact that half my students don't know "empirical" any more than they know "esoteric," and that most of the remaining vocabulary is already fairly context-heavy and root-clued, the main point is that SAT words are already mostly dead. But sure, finish them off -- we sesquipedalians can get our kicks playing Words with Friends.

Free Prep Materials
For 2016, the College Board plans to partner with the non-profit Kahn Academy to design and provide "free test materials for the world." Khan Academy does good work, and will no doubt provide some strong resources. But there already are free materials, online and in every high school and public library. The College Board in fact already publishes a great Official Guide with 10 full practice tests, more than a student could ever need, and I've seen it freely available in every career center I've been in. And yet there are still tons of test prep companies in business. Why? For the same reasons that push-ups are free, yet Americans spend billions on private trainers: motivation and accountability.

Only a minority of teenagers are driven and capable enough to commit to self-guided study in a way that substantially raises their SAT scores. The rest need more. They need a teacher or tutor giving them assignments, checking those assignments and helping them through the stuff they can't figure out on their own. I don't think Kahn and the College Board are planning on providing tutors for every kid in the world; if they are, where is the funding coming from? Will the price of the SAT increase to the point that rich kids who don't qualify for waivers will be paying extra for poorer students to both take and get tutored for the SAT for free? Republicans will love this one.

More likely, Kahn will provide solid and well-intentioned materials and perhaps some individualized coaching, which will quickly be gobbled up by the most motivated and competitive students, who are the ones doing fine on the SAT already. The other students will be left to sadly underutilize the available material, like they do now, flipping a page or clicking a YouTube video or two and not doing the homework -- until their parents get sick of nagging them and pay to put them in a class.

But all that said, perhaps Kahn and company have something better in store, and regardless, if more free materials become available to motivated, low-income students, that's never going to be a negative.

Third, the changes that worry me -- not as a Test Prep Director, but as an educator.

Back to 50 Percent Math
Until 2005, the SAT was scored out of 1600: 800 for math, 800 for verbal. Then the SAT added a third 800 section, writing, for a combined score of 2400, presumably because school (and life) is not half math. And now, we're going back: The 2016 SAT will return to the 1600 point scale: 800 for math, 800 for reading/writing.

Not that math isn't important, but how many math courses do most students take in college, versus non-math? My younger brother was a mechanical engineering major and even he didn't take 50 percent math classes. This change is great, of course, for number-loving students who aren't much for books and such; now they can fake their way to a competitive SAT score just being good at one out of six of their high school subjects. But what about when they get to college, where -- surprise! -- they have to read and write things on a high level? Meanwhile, the new test will be an exclusionary nightmare for strong reading/writing kids who happen to stink at math.

Perhaps non-math major programs will weigh the sections differently, but typically your SAT score is your SAT score. Or perhaps non-math schools will stop considering the SAT altogether, perhaps in favor of the ACT, which is 25 percent math. It seems unlikely that this is the College Board's goal. But what is its goal here? To rebrand the SAT from the "The Vocab Test" to "The Math Test"?

No matter the reason, 50 percent math seems an incommensurate ratio for an exam that's trying to "more closely mirror the course work students are doing in school." Somewhere, the SAT's math is off.

Essay Optional
Of course, the math bias could be easily attenuated, if the test makers weren't also making the essay section optional. But they are, and in doing so, they're sending an unfortunate message about the importance of writing in college, at a time when the one note I've consistently received from counselors and teachers is that kids are lousy writers and not ready for college. Are you going to tell me we don't need writing when the Wall Street Journal, in reporting on the SAT changes, made a basic SAT grammar error?


Verb and pronoun disagreements are literally the top two grammar issues the current SAT tests. I wonder if "ironic" will stay on the vocabulary section.

EDIT: Since my initial screen capture, it looks like Wall Street Journal writers fixed their error... or perhaps one of their kids did, in practicing for their SAT.

There are other changes to the essay section, which have their own issues, but are far outweighed by making it optional. Any time something becomes optional, underprivileged groups are the first to not do it. I'm currently teaching two classes for the ACT (with its optional essay), one on a discounted basis in a poorer neighborhood, the other in a more affluent part of town. Even after constant encouragement to take the essay section, guess which group has more kids opting out?

No matter what, low income kids will be more likely to skip an optional essay section, either for financial reasons or because they don't know any better, thus eliminating themselves from contention for more competitive schools which will undoubtedly require it.

Ultimately, though, even with all these changes, not much will likely change in the SAT world.

What's the alternative? Eliminate the SAT and ACT entirely and judge academic prowess only from grades, turning the competitive college race into a four-year bloodbath of tutors-before-finals and angry parents berating overwrought teachers for ruining their kids' Harvard chances with an A-? At least the stress of the ACT and SAT only lasts a couple months.

As long as colleges continue to accept only a small percentage of applicants, competition will still rage, and colleges will need something like the SAT to help them sift through mountains of applicants. And as long as the test is standardized (and it has to be, to be worth anything), prep companies will game it, and the parents of more affluent students will pay them for it. That's the bad news: No matter what the system is, rich people are always going to find a way to have advantages that poor people don't. That's what rich people do.

But here's the good news: Hardworking, capable students will find a way to succeed, regardless of their income, or the SAT's format. Because that's what they do. Maybe now there will be even more free resources to help them. If not, they're welcome to email me, and I'll talk them through it.