Why the Updated SAT Is Better for Students

Exactly a year ago this week, I wasted four grueling hours taking the SAT. My peers were science fair winners, debate champions, poets and athletes, but for this short period of time, we joined together to meet the same goal: make the fewest careless mistakes possible and achieve an optimal score. The exam was a bar we all had to cross to gain admission to the colleges of our dreams, and so while none of us enjoyed the exam, we maintained focus and attention until it ended.

Standardized testing has many critics. Only 20 percent of high school teachers think the college-admissions tests as a fair measure of the work, according to the New York Times. Nikhil Goyal, education reform activism and author of One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student's Assessment of School, has called the SAT "asinine [and] flawed." For its flaws, standardized testing provides college with an objective way to measure student ability. With top-notch universities still requiring a standardized college admission test, it's safe to assume that college admission tests are here to stay.

With this in mind, the question becomes how to improve the test. The test should offer "worthy challenges, not artificial obstacles," in the words of College Board President David Coleman. This week, the College Board announced four major changes, all of which represent substantial steps forward. First, the SAT will replace archaic vocabulary words with more useful ones. This has three major benefits. First, it will make the test more practical. A high score would better predict a student's' ability to write effectively. Second, it will reduce the need for test prep. Fewer students will find themselves being forced to memorize hundreds of "SAT words" (these words are used so infrequently that they have literally become defined by their appearance in the SAT), so that they are prepared with one or two of them appear on the exam. Third, it will improve equity. Irrelevant vocabulary words favor higher income students who have a higher likelihood of having been exposed to these words and can afford/are encouraged to complete test prep courses (Princeton Review's group SAT class can cost as much as $1,699).

The SAT will also eliminate its essay requirement. Student who opt for a writing section will be asked to analyze a passage and write about it, as opposed to generating an essay based on a one line prompt. This is a positive improvement because writing an SAT essay reflected very little about a student's actual writing ability. A study by Milo Beckman (Stuyvesant High School alumnus) found that the length of an SAT essay predicted its score. Les Perelman, MIT's writing across the curriculum director agrees. In 2010 he told ABC News that he could "predict an SAT essay's score 90 percent of the time just by looking at the length." Furthermore, by providing students who do opt for the essay with greater structure, and shifting the section's emphasis from creative writing to textual analysis, the College Board will create an improved metric for students' ability to succeed in college.

The last modification to the SAT is the removal of the guessing penalty (leaving a question blank meant 0 points, but getting it wrong would incur an extra penalty of .25 points). This grading formula is foreign to most students as it is used only for the SAT. As a result, it advantages students who have well-developed test-taking skills over intelligent ones.

The updated SAT is better tailored to measure students' capabilities and therefore presents colleges with an improved metric for student success. Innovation and change by the College Board should continue: AP curriculums should be made more difficult and prices should be slashed, the SAT reading questions should be more about analysis and the College Board should have fewer trick questions. Math questions should address topics in geometry, trigonometry and pre-calculus -- actual topics that students learn in their classrooms. The SAT is still far from perfect, but the College Board should be lauded for making an effort to adapt to student concerns.