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Alex Mallory Headshot

What the New SAT May Look Like and Why It Could Be Mandatory

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Co-authored by Director of Standardized Test Preparation Michael Bergen

Last February, new College Board president David Coleman announced that the SAT would be changing its format again in 2015. The announcement was not shocking; the SAT changed its content in 1994 and again in 2005, so a change in 2015 would have been on schedule. But Coleman was not forthcoming with concrete details about the changes to the SAT at the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) last September, and in December, the College Board announced that implementation of the new SAT would be delayed until 2016, claiming officials in higher education need more time to adjust to the changes. Though this might seem like a case of ambition thwarted by bureaucratic hurdles, there is reason to suspect that the College Board's movement for change is as much about boosting revenue as it is about improving the test.

While Coleman and the College Board have been cagey about the details of changing the SAT, there are some definite areas we can expect the changes to target. In a 2012 appearance at the Brookings Institution, Coleman cited two portions on the test that needed to change: the vocabulary and the essay. In its current incarnation, the vocabulary on the SAT tests words one is not likely to find in daily life -- words like picayune and treacly -- in the context of a single sentence. Coleman opined that vocabulary questions should instead center on familiar and usable vocabulary, "words like transform, deliberate, hypothesis." In the same talk, Coleman mentioned a need to overhaul the essay, suggesting that students write short essays analyzing source materials rather than pulling examples out of thin air; he echoed this sentiment at the NACAC meeting in 2012 but did not offer further specifics. Regardless, the essay has been under scrutiny since it was introduced in 2005, most notably in an experiment by MIT writing professor Les Perelman which found that SAT essays can receive high scores by following a formula that focuses on advanced vocabulary (even if it is misspelled or used incorrectly), examples from literature and history (even if they are spurious), and overall essay length (the longer the better).

If the essay and vocabulary were the only changes the College Board had in mind, it seems unlikely that no progress would be made in a year's time. Not only would the changes be unlikely to challenge counseling and admissions personnel by changing the scoring scale or the type of preparation needed, but they should not be too challenging to implement. The vocabulary could be eliminated altogether (as it is on the ACT) or perhaps modified to test the multiple meanings of more familiar words in context. Changing the essay to a format that rewards factual accuracy would be even easier. As a template, the SAT could use the Document Based Questions on Advanced Placement tests which reward proper use of supplied information to support a position. This should be a seamless transition because the Advanced Placement tests are also written by the College Board.

More likely is that the College Board plans bigger, farther-reaching changes for the SAT, an admirable goal for the oft-criticized test. But why rush those plans for a launch in 2015? Probably to turn the tide against the SAT's dwindling market share. David Coleman announced the changes just a few months after it was revealed that the ACT -- for years an afterthought in college admissions testing -- eclipsed the SAT in popularity for the first time in history in 2012. While many factors contributed to this shake-up, the largest is likely that the ACT has pitched itself as aligned with curriculum standards and become mandatory for high school students in 11 states; in contrast, Delaware is the only state with 100 percent participation on the SAT. One of Coleman's stated goals has been to make the content of the SAT closer to what students learn in the classroom, likely building off the Common Core Standards set for implementation in most states in the 2014-2015 school year. If the College Board were to arrange a deal with even half of these 46 states similar to the one the ACT currently has, the result would be millions more in revenue and a major blow to the SAT's main competitor.

The College Board's big challenge, then, would be to mimic the Common Core Standards. The best man for that job? Look no further than the co-lead author of the Common Core and now President of the College Board, David Coleman.

I do not doubt that the College Board intends to make a fairer, more accessible test, as it should. But don't be surprised if the new SAT is the next step in the movement toward more mandatory, high-stakes testing.