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Grading the New SAT: A Timely Course Correction

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The David Fincher-Kevin Spacey blockbuster show House of Cards kicked off its first season with a story arc revolving around the unscrupulous Congressman Frank Underwood (played by Spacey) maneuvering and manipulating an Education Bill through the Hill.

It's a tad ironic then that digging deeper into the hows and whys of the new SAT framework reveals layers and nuances to the issue that the best TV show writers would be hard pressed to equal. It proves once again education in America is the stuff of high drama.

Multiple Choice

The first thing to consider about the SAT is that it impacts not just a domestic constituency -- at last count more than 1.7 million students across 175 countries took the test, from neighboring Canada, to the home of Spelling Bee champs, India.

It's also big business -- estimates of the SAT prep business in the US alone cross the $1 billion mark comfortably, and you don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out how any change in the tests will create a money-spinning opportunity for the prep providers.

The urge to act on the SAT though has come after being outscored in popularity by a rival test, the ACT. As per a detailed analysis in the Princeton Review the ACT comes through with flying colors when compared to the current SAT. Not only is the ACT easier to understand for test takers, it pays more attention to Science and Math than the SAT does, at a time when STEM education in the US is a priority. At least on paper.

The SAT on the other hand was degenerating into a literary exercise, with an emphasis on exotic vocabulary and the much disliked mandatory 25-minute essay . In the best traditions of imitation being the best form of flattery, the new SAT is going to make the essay optional, copying the existing ACT format.

1.8 million students took the ACT last year compared to 1.7 million for the SAT. Clearly, math trumps literary sensibilities.

Keep it Simple Stupid

The SAT had also become too smart, in other words too complex, for it's own good. It changed its scoring scale from 1600 to 2400, and in its latest avatar will revert to 1600 again. Negative scoring for wrong answers will be removed in the new SAT and questions will align more closely with school curricula rather than test knowledge is abstract isolation.

One reason for this climbdown from complexity is that the hubris of standardized testing as the be all and end all of gaining admission into college has been severely tested. Increasingly colleges are giving more weight to grades in high school, and the academic quality of courses rather than just the standardized test scores. Some colleges have made test scores optional altogether! If this trend continues long-term both the SAT and ACT may lose their sheen.

Moreover, it will be interesting to see the ripples the new SAT -- modified primarily for the benefit of American test takers -- creates across the oceans. Getting into an American college is a highly prized goal in countries like China and Korea, and cheating on one's SAT can take a whole new meaning in these places. How the new system might be gamed will be interesting to observe, and might provide further ammunition to critics of standardized testing.

Guidance Required

Learning has always been a cherished human goal, but education unfortunately has got in the way by becoming an industry that more often than not serves its own purposes. The most stark contrast of the two approaches has been acknowledged, perhaps unwittingly, by the College Board itself -- the body than run the SAT.

As part of the new SAT, free prep materials will be made available through a partnership with the Khan Academy. Yes, the same guys who disrupted the education industry with their free-to-view YouTube videos on curriculum topics ranging from Trigonometry to Evolution.

Khan Academy's evolved into a full-fledged educational non-profit now -- it's YouTube channel alone has 1.7 million subscribers. Backed by the likes of Bill Gates, Google, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, founder Salman Khan -- a Harvard and MIT grad -- has changed the landscape of learning, even as high falutin think tanks conduct their annual hand wringing on the broken nature of America's education system.

At least the new head of the College Board, David Coleman, seems to have embarked on the right path by simplifying and lowering the cost of the SAT process. Initial reactions from the folks managing the admissions process at colleges has also been largely positive. As the search for better answers to the question of college admissions continues the "new and improved" spring 2016 SAT will hopefully merit a passing grade from all stakeholders.

Meanwhile, for America's educators there's lots more to learn.