The new SAT seems to bring more harm than good

Claire Goldsmith

Anyone who’s been through the college process will remember the buzz, a mix of mystery and terror, surrounding the SAT. Now, with the announcement of changes coming to the infamous test in 2016, the discussion has only intensified.

My problem with this new test is multifaceted. It seems to me to be a dumbing-down of the exam, and one that is supremely unacknowledged and evaded by David Coleman, the president of the College Board, and I think that is the exact opposite of what we need.

The changes Coleman unveiled two weeks ago include making the essay optional, eradicating some of the more esoteric vocabulary words, simplifying the math sections, adding some science-based reading passages and eliminating the guessing penalty (students currently lose a quarter of a point for each wrong answer). The new test would be out of 1,600 instead of 2,400. It will be entirely acceptable to make up facts in the essay. These reforms are, he claims, with the goal of testing on skills that are more useful in life rather than just on the skills of the SAT — what he says is a plague on the admissions process.

In the past few years, the ACT, another standardized test, has slowly crept up in the market, eventually becoming the test of choice for over 50 percent of the consumer base (if you want to call a couple million high school juniors a consumer base). On the coasts, more students still take the SAT, but the ACT dominates in the midwest. Eliminating the guessing penalty, making the essay optional, adding science questions and taking away complex vocabulary are essentially transforming the SAT into the ACT. The College Board is a business, but it shouldn’t sacrifice student choice to take back a few points of the market share.

While I would be quick to agree that there are problems with the importance and use of standardized tests in the college admissions process, this change in the SAT doesn’t address them. Diluting the test makes the exam even less useful as a standard by which to measure applicants.

The average SAT score of the class of 2014 nationwide is a 1498 (496 on Critical Reading, 514 on Math, 488 on Writing). For comparison, the average for Harvard-Westlake’s class of 2014 is a 688 on Critical Reading, 703 on Math and a 707 on Writing for a total of 2098 – a full 600 points higher. The College Board holds a 1550 as the SAT Benchmark score — students who score above it are more likely to enroll in college and complete their degree. Currently, only 43 percent of test-takers in the United States get above that score.

This new test will be easier. The hardest math and most challenging vocabulary will be gone, and it will be easier to rack up points without a guessing penalty. Scores, adjusted for the lower 1600-point scale, will be higher. This will certainly look better as a national average, but I don’t think it will reflect gains in student knowledge.

If the College Board makes the test easier with the goal — or even a goal — of raising the average SAT score, students’ scores mean nothing. Furthermore, if they would have been below the benchmark on the old SAT but now score above it, the system propagates a false preparedness that could actually hurt students who aren’t as ready for college as they think.

The New York Times article announcing the changes to the test, while describing the reworked and now-optional essay, explained that students will now “write about their experiences and opinions, with no penalty for incorrect assertions, even egregiously wrong ones.”

I think allowing students to make up facts is unacceptable — and the antithesis of the life skills Coleman believes the SAT should be teaching — but students who prepare for the new SAT may not even know the meaning of the word “egregious” in that sentence. Higher scores on an easier test do not beget a better-educated or more competent population, and yet this fallacy has proven both persuasive and pervasive as the College Board looks to increase its own standing.

I don’t doubt that the test could be improved, but this is not the way to do it.