When she took the SAT in March, Karissa Cloutier, a high school junior in New Hampshire, was one of the first students to take the newest iteration of the test, originally the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which has been administered since 1926. It went pretty well, she says, although she would have hoped for more time on the reading sections.
“Everything in general felt rushed due to having strict start and end times,” Cloutier, 17, says. And when asked what she would change about the SAT if given the chance, she says, “I would add more time to the reading parts. It took too much time to read the passage only to have to reread it to answer the questions.”
College Board, which administers the SAT, reconfigured the test's content and scoring to better reflect what students are actually learning and are likelier to use later in life.
"The redesigned SAT focuses on the comparatively few things that evidence shows matter most for college and career readiness and success, and therefore better reflects what students are learning in class," according to a College Board statement. "This means the questions on the redesigned SAT will be more familiar to students."
Those changes affect a large number of college hopefuls. In 2015, 59 percent of the graduating class, or more than 1.92 million students, took the rival American College Test (ACT), while less than 1.7 million students took the SAT, Education Week reported.
However much College Board touts its revised test, not everyone agrees that the changes are an improvement. Among test takers and the tutors who help high school students prepare for the SAT test, the newest iteration of the test has both proponents and detractors. And as students start to get their scores, and colleges begin to collect data on how effective the changes are, the conversation is likely to continue.
The new test
First administered in March, the new SAT has several main changes over the previous version. First, the test returns to its earlier practice of scoring tests from 400 to 1,600 points, rather than the most recent scale of a maximum of 2,400 points, which was in place for about a decade.
The increase in 2005 to a scale up to 2,400 moved from a test that carried a maximum score of 800 on verbal and 800 on math sections (total of 1,600) to one in which students could score a maximum of 800 each on the traditional two sections, as well as a new essay section. The 2016 test renders the essay optional.
In addition to the optional essay, as well as a required math section and required evidence-based reading and writing sections, test takers are no longer penalized for incorrect answers, as they have been since the 1950s. Multiple-choice questions now have four responses to choose from, rather than the prior five. And College Board says it is releasing more information about test takers’ scores than it had previously done to make it easier for students and colleges to understand what the new scores mean.
College Board also aimed to make the math and English sections correspond more realistically with what students are likely to need to know in college and what skills they will use after college. So the new vocabulary section, College Board says, dispenses with esoteric and crepuscular words, and uses more common ones.
Hundreds of thousands of students across the country have taken the new SAT, according to College Board, which found several changes in the responses it received in 2016 from 8,089 students who took the new test from what it had heard from 6,494 test takers in the same time frame in March 2015. In 2016, 71 percent of respondents thought the test reflected what they were learning in school. Whereas only 55 percent of 2015 respondents thought the vocabulary tested on the SAT would be useful later in life, 75 percent felt that way in 2016. And, according to College Board, students preferred the new to the old test by a six to one margin.
Cloutier, who took the test in early March, prefers the new SAT to the prior version, citing the lack of guessing penalty. “By being able to guess, it helps the test takers do better, because there’s a chance of getting the correct answer,” she says. “The taker may or may not know the material as well as they could, but when time is limited you can’t waste it trying to find the correct answer if something is taking a long time.”
SAT versus ACT
In a panel titled “New Developments in College Admissions Testing” at the Education Writers Association’s seminar in Los Angeles on Feb. 26, officials from College Board and ACT, which compete for test takers and their test fees, traded jabs about differences between their companies. (The new SAT costs $54.50 with the essay, and $43 without the essay; the ACT costs $56.50 with writing test, and $39.50 without.)
David Coleman, the president of College Board, said the SAT needed to change to "secure opportunity" for test takers who were marginalized by previous iterations of the test, and who couldn't afford expensive tutors to master the test. "We don’t need more tests; we need more opportunities," he said.
Along with the content changes in the SAT, College Board has made it easier for students who require fee waivers to apply to take the test for free. And, Coleman said, his company is partnering with the nonprofit Khan Academy to provide free tutoring, displacing tutors, who tend to “go after affluent suburbanites.”
“For too long, the College Board turned away, I think, and kind of said, ‘Hey. Not our fault. We made a good test. This corrupt [tutoring] industry may have evolved around it,’” Coleman said. The College Board’s view now is, “While it may not be our fault, it is our problem,” Coleman said.
“If you’re wondering who should be worried about this new exam, I’ll be rather frank: certainly not students," he added. "The changes we’ve made to this exam are welcoming to them, but it may be test-prep executives that are beginning to see a changing game.”
As proud as Coleman was of his company’s changes, however, Kenton Pauls, director of higher education partnerships at ACT, was adamant that his company has remained constant.
“Our longstanding, core assessment has not changed in any significant way. That’s really our story,” Pauls said. “We don’t anticipate that we will need to make any changes in the foreseeable future.”
ACT hasn’t made any major change to its core assessment in 30 years, Pauls said, and ACT continues to avoid penalizing for guessing; its writing section has remained optional; and it is the only national tester to measure science skills. Its scores have also remained on a scale of 1 to 36.
“We have made some additions to what we report without making changes to how we assess,” he said.
ACT and SAT administer a similar number of tests each year. About 1.8 million students take the ACT every year, according to its website, while College Board data from 2015 found that year to be a record year, with 1.7 million students taking the SAT, compared to 1.67 million the prior year and 1.65 million in 2011.
With the debut of the new SAT, some are finding the pendulum shifting in their decision whether to take the SAT or ACT.
“My students now want the ACT. Everyone is spooked about the new SAT,” says Vicki Kolomensky, a tutor in New York who, for the past 10 years, has helped hundreds of students prepare for the ACT, GRE, SAT and specialized New York high school admissions tests.
East Coast students have long preferred the SAT, according to Kolomensky, who says that when she started tutoring, almost everyone took the SAT. But that has changed.
"As more colleges started accepting the ACT, students started to gravitate towards the test," she says. "There is a perception that the ACT is easier, and while I wouldn't agree with that totally, I would not hesitate to say that the material on it is much more straightforward."
The new SAT has spooked students, Kolomensky has found.
"They don't want to be guinea pigs for a national testing service. The unknown is always more frightening, and add to that the idea that the test sets the course for their future success makes it that much more scary," she says. "So now, more than ever, the SAT is hardly even considered, especially when the ACT has been making the rounds among their older siblings and friends for years."
Erika Oppenheimer, who has helped about 80 students prepare for the SAT and ACT since 2011, says it’s impossible to know how well the new SAT will reflect students’ abilities or predict their college performance.
“There are no data yet. To date, students haven’t received their scores for the March SAT test, and the new SAT has not been used in an admissions cycle,” says Oppenheimer, author of the recent book, “Acing It! A Mindful Guide to Maximum Results on Your College Admissions Test.”
Ultimately, she says, students should choose whether to take the SAT or the ACT based on how comfortable they are taking both as practice tests, and should see which they score better on.
Still, she adds, it’s very early days for the SAT. “The ACT has more official test content publicly available and therefore feels more predictable than the new SAT,” Oppenheimer says.
That’s not much of a concern to Drew Heilpern, director of educational partnerships at Summit Educational Group with offices in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
“We like the changes that the College Board put into place for the new SAT,” he says. “One of the goals of the College Board for their redesign was to make the test more reflective of the type of work that students are asked to do in school on a day-in and day-out basis. From what we have seen thus far, it appears that they were able to accomplish that goal.”
The old SAT was criticized for feeling “random” and “disconnected” from students’ schoolwork, and for wording that appeared to overly complicate and misdirect test takers, according to Heilpern. So Summit staff tried to help students understand what exactly the questions were asking. “We also helped them to understand what made a right answer right and a wrong answer wrong, so when students were 50-50 on a question and were convinced that there were two right answers they could find the actual correct one,” he says.
The new SAT is very different, from testing grammar in context rather than isolation to eliminating “those wonderful SAT vocab words that we all knew and love.” Whether it will succeed in its effort to measure students’ current academic abilities and to predict how well they will perform in college is to be determined, Heilpern says.
“We will need more administrations of the test and more data before we can accurately conclude whether the new SAT is a better predictor of college readiness compared to the old SAT. We will also need to see how those states that have adopted the new SAT as their state assessment test — Michigan, Connecticut, and New Hampshire — end up using these scores,” he says.
But even before that data comes in, Heilpern thinks the new SAT will strike most students as “less random and less esoteric” than its predecessor.
Menachem Wecker is an art critic and religion and education reporter in Washington, D.C. His book, "Consider No Evil: Two Faith Traditions and the Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education," was recently published by Cascade Books.