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New SAT To Bring Back 1600-Point Scale -- With Optional Essay

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AUSTIN, Texas -- The venerable SAT college admissions test will look very different in spring 2016. And, according to the new test's architect, there will be "no more mysteries."

The essay will be optional, and will be based on a source document included in the test. The top test score will be 1,600 -- as it was before 2005, when the writing section and essay were added. The test's two mandatory sections, "evidence-based reading and writing," and math, and will take up to three hours to complete. The essay will take up to 50 minutes, and will be scored separately.

Some math questions will prohibit calculator use. Students will no longer lose points for wrong answers. The test will be available both in print and digitally. The price hasn't been announced.

David Coleman, who in 2012 became president of the nonprofit company College Board that owns the SAT, will present the broad outline of the test redesign in a speech in Austin on Wednesday, part of the SXSWedu conference. The changes are meant to mitigate the unfair test-prep culture the SAT has engendered, to foster more meaningful learning in school, and to make the testing process more open, Coleman said in the prepared text of his speech. More details will be released in mid-April.

"We plan to make an exam that is clearer and more open than any in our history," Coleman said in the speech. "We need to get rid of the sense of mystery and dismantle the advantages that people perceive in using costly test preparation.'"

The new test will be so un-mysterious that Coleman is already giving away one question -- the essay: "As you read the passage in front of you, consider how the author uses evidence such as facts or examples, reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence, and stylistic or persuasive elements to add power to the ideas expressed. Write an essay in which you explain how the author builds an argument to persuade an audience." Only the source material will vary.

Coleman condemned the old SAT and its competitor, the ACT, calling them out of touch, and sometimes inadvertent culprits in creating educational inequity.

"It is time to admit that the SAT and ACT have become disconnected from the work of our high schools," he said. "Too many feel that the prevalence of test prep and expensive coaching reinforces privilege rather than merit.

"It is time for the College Board to say in a clear voice that the culture and practice of costly test preparation … drives the perception of inequality and injustice in our country," Coleman said. "It may not be our fault but it is our problem."

The goal, according to Coleman, is getting students to engage more deeply in day-to-day schooling. "What this country needs is not more tests, but more opportunities," he said. "It is time for the College Board to move from measuring to acting."

The College Board will make other adjustments with the test redesign. Every student who takes the SAT and is below a certain income threshold will receive four waivers for college application fees. The College Board is working with The Atlantic magazine to create a contest that showcases students' best SAT essays. And in a move that will likely draw resistance from the test-preparation industry, the College Board is partnering with the online, YouTube-based study guide Khan Academy to create free test-preparation tools for students. The videos will have exclusive access to practice problems from actual SAT tests.

The new exam reflects the sensibilities of Common Core State Standards, the guidelines for what students should be learning in each grade that Coleman helped design, as well as those of other states that have made their standards more rigorous. Currently, 46 states have adopted the Common Core, and teachers are already implementing the standards. Some educators have said they think the revamped SAT may encourage Common Core states to continue rolling out the guidelines, despite growing political opposition in some places.

"What I sense here -- all of us who have been in these conversations assume the same thing -- David Coleman is bringing the Common Core to the SAT," said Anthony Carnevale, a Georgetown University professor who leads the school's Center on Education and the Workforce. Carnevale was not formally briefed on the SAT changes. But as a former vice president of Educational Testing Services, he was involved with conversations around the revamped test.

Coleman has repeatedly said the Common Core aims to have students learn focused material based on the idea that standards should be "fewer, clearer, higher." Like the Common Core, the SAT reading section will include non-literary texts, including non-fiction, social studies, science, and historical articles. Students will be asked to analyze data "in real-world contexts, including identifying and correcting inconsistencies between the two," according to a College Board memo.

The test also will include at least one American founding document, or a document on "Great Global Conversation they inspire." Students will be required to cite evidence from source texts to support answers. Vocabulary words will move away from obscure, so-called SAT words to words like "synthesis" and "empirical" likely to be used in college and whose meanings shift with context.

One Common Core goal was to have students "read like a detective," basing inferences on evidence instead of personal feelings. The new SAT's source-based essay is supposed to help colleges judge students' analytical abilities, since a document will enable scorers to fact-check the basis of assertions, instead of merely grading writing and coherence.

And in math, Common Core aims to have students focus on numerical fluency and mastering fewer concepts, but fundamental ones. The new SAT's math section will focus on three areas: "Problem Solving and Data Analysis," the "Heart of Algebra" and "Passport to Advanced Math."

"It is really about being quantitatively literate," Coleman said, comparing elemental algebra skills to a "trunk of a tree or the handle of a fork."

Carol Jago, who leads the College Board's English Academic Advisory Committee, and the University of California, Los Angeles California Reading and Literature Project, said the new test's Common Core similarities have less to do with the new state standards than with broader educational shifts.

"Both the Common Core and this redesign are a result of this zeitgeist -- the statistics on students who are arriving in college who aren't ready for credit-bearing work," Jago said. "This movement to bring more rigor, more authenticity, bring a reading-writing task, comes from the same fire."

A few states, including Texas, are not implementing the Common Core. But the revamped SAT nevertheless will be relevant, according to Donald Kamentz, who directs college initiatives at YES Prep Public Schools, a charter school chain, and who sat on the national SAT committee.

"We were assured that this assessment is aligned to … even our state math" and English standards, he said. "It is a broader sense of the skills needed for college readiness and career readiness."

The new test will come with a warning that a standardized test is but one measure of a student's academic prowess -- a warning that Stephen Handel, the University of California associate vice president in charge of undergraduate admissions, stressed. "What we need is what we've always needed: Indicators that are reliable and valid which give us the sense of a student's potential," said Handel, who was briefed on the redesign. "Without seeing the test itself, it's hard to say [whether the new test will be more predictive of student success in college," he added. "In theory, it's a great idea."

Others disagreed. Gary Gruber, a physicist who publishes SAT preparation books, said he worried the changes would "dumb down" the test.

"They're taking out difficult vocabulary words," Gruber said. "You have a word like magnanimous, but there's a strategy -- associate it with another word like magnify. That's something you don't want to lose."

Carnevale said he expects the new test to become a better measure of economically driven educational inequity.

"The better the test gets, the more carefully it'll reflect the underlying distribution of income and power in America, and that's a problem," Carnevale said.

Coleman "is a key player in the American personnel system in a world where his test is the one thing that can go wrong for a middle-class family trying to ensure that their children are middle class," Carnevale continued. "People are very invested in this test, so he has to be very careful."