First things first though: The new SAT will NOT debut until SPRING 2016. So, for now the SAT will remain largely the same.
Why the changes? Les Perelman, a former director of writing at M.I.T, explains that in the current SAT, details matter, but factual accuracy does not. “You can tell them the War of 1812 began in 1945,” he said. On the current SAT, if students writing their essays sprinkle in little-used but fancy words like “plethora” or “myriad” and use two or three preselected quotes from prominent figures like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, regardless of whether they’re relevant to the question asked, they can achieve a high score. This seems a flawed measure of student aptitude to say the least.
And that is one of the reasons the test needs to change. Again, though, for now the test will not be changing. So vocabulary still matters and for the next couple of years at least, students should keep practicing those flash cards!
What will the new test look like?
Format: The new SAT will be a three-hour exam scored on the old 1,600 point system (800 for math, 800 for reading, with an optional essay scored separately). Supposedly, by 2016, there will be a computerized version of the SAT, and students may someday search the text and highlight the lines on the screen.
Reading and Writing: Evidence-based reading and writing will replace the current sections. It will use as its source materials pieces of writing, from science articles to historical documents to literature excerpts, which research suggests are important for educated Americans to know and understand deeply. Every SAT will contain a passage from either a founding document (The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Federalist Papers) or from a text like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
David Coleman, the fairly new head of the College Board (which administers the SAT), is big into evidence based reading and arguments supported with contextually relevant facts. The changes will, in his view, promote the idea that students must read a wide variety of texts throughout their high-school years, instead of encouraging students to memorize flashcards.
Vocabulary: Vocab will include language more commonly used in classrooms as opposed to obscure words memorized for the sole purpose of the test. This seems like a great, and much needed change, emphasizing context over memorization. Evidence-based reading and writing versus a broad personal essay seems to more aptly test how well a student can actually process new information rather than focusing on rote memorization.
Math: The changes to the math section seem even more radical. Coleman’s view (based on empirical evidence, of course) is that American schools typically teach a broad range of math but they do not teach much depth. Research shows that depth outweighs breadth, so the new SAT will test deeper understanding of just three fundamental math concepts: linear equations; complex equations or functions; and ratios, percentages and proportional reasoning, and calculators will be permitted on only part of the math section.
The studies he’s basing both his conclusions and the test’s changes off of do suggest that such a change would be good for American students. However, he’s not changing what the students will be learning throughout the year in school, he’s just changing what the SAT will test. This could open a potentially large disparity between what high school students know and what appears on the test. Lucy Calkins, the founding director of the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University’s Teachers College, put it well, “The issue is: Are we in a place to let Dave Coleman control the entire K-to-12 curriculum?”
Our Opinion: We think the changes to the reading and writing portion are relevant and beneficial. The changes to the math portion make us a bit nervous without similar changes in K-12 curriculum. However, Coleman is trying to partner up with the folks at Khan academy to make the SAT content more transparent and less murky. If this is accomplished before the 2016 changes, students will have ample time to adjust and prepare for whatever gap may exist between current high school curriculums and the future SAT.
Big changes are afoot at the College Board and for the SAT test, but not until 2016. In the meantime, students and SAT tutors should hold off on panic or changing their study plans until the changes are implemented.