The Redesigned SAT is nigh

Posted on 4th March 2016

Tomorrow, Saturday 5th March 2016, sees the first sitting of the new, Redesigned SAT. (In the US, at least; everywhere else will have to wait until May 2016.) But this is no ordinary test – the SAT has undergone the greatest overhaul in its 89-year history, and the brave souls sitting this new test for the first time will be guinea pigs in an experiment everyone is waiting to see the results of.

Except that for the College Board, this isn’t an experiment. It has put all its eggs into this basket, and if any break, it’s not going to be possible to put them back together.

Why has the College Board changed a test that was so popular? The ACT, the SAT’s rival test, reveals the answer. Back in 2012, the ACT overtook the SAT as the most popular college entrance test. This was the result of several factors: the SAT had long been viewed as a tricky, somewhat unfair test of logical reasoning, whereas the ACT is more a test of knowledge. But the problems and criticisms of the now-old SAT run deeper than merely a student preference: the colleges themselves, and even high schools, argued that the SAT wasn’t very reflective of the skills students needed to succeed. The decision was made to overhaul the SAT, as well as its feeder test, the PSAT. Tomorrow is the result of three years of preparations, but what will happen is far from clear, as the test now aims to assess a multitude of skills that form a student’s ‘college readiness’.

The new test is much less esoteric than its predecessor, with more English, math and science in context rather than isolated in deceptive and sometimes nefariously worded questions. In that respect, it’s a fairer test, and somewhat similar to the ACT. (Read more about the differences here.) However, the issues lie more in how the test is scored, or more precisely, how the raw scores will be related to the various indicators that the College Board has defined. Over the last three years, benchmarks and readiness levels have been defined and adjusted, and we were told that the new PSAT in October 2015 would show how these would work in practice. That results of that test were confusing to say the least, and opaque to say a bit more. The readiness levels were redefined quickly, and some of the scores we saw were well above those predicted. It’s not that the College Board have inflated the scaled scores on purpose; it’s that without proper testing and refinement with real candidates, you can’t decide what the levels will be in advance.

The concern is that after tomorrow, the same problems will occur. With so many schools and states invested in the new test, confusing results here won’t spell the end for the College Board, but they will lead to more lack of trust from colleges, who, after all, rely on these tests as way to filter their applicants.

Time will tell whether the Redesigned SAT can deliver on its promises of reform and relevance, but for now, students taking the test tomorrow will have to hope that their efforts haven’t been wasted.
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