05/21/2013 12:17 pm ET Updated Jul 20, 2013

Stay Safe With SAT Changes

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Just when you thought you had studied enough, read all the books, done all the prep work. Just when you thought you were safe, sources from College Board announced that it would be changing its infamous SAT yet again. This may not bode well for many prospective test-takers this fall. So, this begs the question: Is there a way to master the SAT?

Renovations are not new for the SAT. In its history, it has been modified eleven times, the most recent being in 2012. However, these sudden changes do not reflect the constant metamorphosis that the test goes through each year. College Board, the mother organization of the test, continuously updates its content and structure in order to sustain relevance, fend off its rival, the ACT, and maintain its function to assess a student's readiness for college.

In recent years, tutors and test prep centers have found that each of the three sections of the SAT have had slight modifications. In math, College Board has moved to make the test slightly more difficult, "as many students were scoring perfect raw scores, leading to test grade inflation," according to a College Board representative.

The test makers have moved to diminish some of the computational aspects in favor of more geometry and Algebra II. Specifically, function notation, radical simplification, imaginary numbers and rules of exponents are some topics that have appeared with heightened frequency. One of the central flaws of the math section, cited by College Board themselves, was that "the test did not actually assess math skills but how a student's nerves fared under pressure." For instance, test prep tutors have found that problems considered easy seemed to be more difficult for the students. It appears that interpreting the problems very carefully so as not to assume things that are being said seems to be more important than ever. In the College Board's line of thinking, simplicity leads to over-thinking, and thus more difficult questions would lead to a more straightforward indicator of college preparedness.

The Critical Reading section is becoming increasingly difficult as well. College Board has recently decided to discontinue the infamous analogy portion of the Critical Reading section, replacing it with a more context-centered sentence completion section. Critics of the analogy section claimed that the questions given were not practical in real-world situations, and had underlying biases toward certain socio-economic groups.

The sentence completion section, said to be more indicative of a student's knowledge of vocabulary, is more academic in nature. Vocabulary itself is now a centerfold in every portion of the section, including both sentence completion and reading comprehension. Students must have their roots and prefixes down pat. Overall, the section is moving in a much more academic direction. More specifically, the sentences themselves seem to be heavily related to fields of history, science, economics and politics. Concurrently, the readings are more non-fiction, necessitating at least a fundamental knowledge of some outside sources. In general, each of the readings appear more related to readings that students would need to be successful academically. In this regard, the SAT would seem to have moved closer in nature to its competitor, the ACT.

The writing section has had modest changes, though it has also followed the trend of being modified in a more scholarly manner. The essay section has been arguably the most highly criticized portion of the test. Even David Coleman, the President of College Board, has suggested "that it allows too much personal narrative and doesn't challenge students to make evidence-based written arguments, a skill demanded in college." In conjunction with the complaints, the topics included in the essay have evolved from more personalized, anecdotal prompts to more non-fiction-related subjects.

Test prep organizations are utilizing more academic sources and examples in their tutoring, in order to give students the closest replica of the test. The newly added grammar section, installed after the essay was deemed ineffective as an indicator of English abilities, posed some problems for students. Once again, according to several tutors from Chyten Montclair, this stemmed from the increased academic nature of the questions, along with the level of critical thinking that they require. Certain shortcuts are being debunked and rendered ineffective by the new SAT, as test-makers have looked to keep the test structurally fresh.

In general, there has been a growing sentiment to make the test more like its counterpart, the ACT. In 2012, more than 1.66 million students took the SAT, the largest class of test-takers in history. However, in 2011, the number of ACT takers surpassed the SAT for the first time in the test's history. With its four diverse sections (English, Reading, Math and Science), many believe the ACT to be the truest indicator of a student's college readiness of the two. Coleman has urged the necessity of the SAT's evolution in order "to ensure that the SAT is relevant," claiming that "while the SAT is the best standardized measure of college and career readiness currently available, the College Board has a responsibility to the millions of students we serve each year to ensure that our programs are continuously evaluated and enhanced, and most importantly response to the emerging needs of those we serve."

Moreover, the ACT is painted in guidance offices across America as a more direct, easily understood test; counselors often declare that students who "do not test well" should opt for the ACT over the SAT. Nancy Griesemer, a private admissions counselor who writes about the process, said via e-mail that "I'm just assuming they are rapidly losing market share and need to move a little closer to what they can sell to the states for assessment purposes. This stuff snowballs and even my clients are heading in the direction of the ACT because they view it as more straightforward." In any case, College Board is unlikely to make drastic changes to the actual structure, seeing as their last major change -- the addition of the writing section and the increased point total from 1600 to 2400 -- occurred less than a decade ago.

So who will be the winner in this test-battle? No question, the students. In this market for standardized tests, the students are the consumers. And just as in any market, the consumers benefit when a monopoly is dethroned, and two suppliers look to outbid each other. Both tests will continue to evolve and adapt to their consumers' demands, and thus they should always be satisfied. Furthermore, there is a growing movement of colleges and universities across the nation to not require either test during the application process. While most high end universities still require either test, top-tier schools like Wake Forest, Bowdoin, DePaul and Mount Holyoke are test-optional. The ball has never been more in the students' court. It's up to them to see what the future holds for each of these standardized testing powerhouses.

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