Experts are mixed on the new SAT test

The revised exam for admission to US universities ‘hurts intellectual rigour’.

Barbara Drake, a former teacher who now runs SAT test prep courses around the world with Academic Services International. says: ‘Before you could use a calculator for everything. There’s good and bad there. I truly believe that students should be able to do some simple math on their own without having to grab a calculator.’ Mona Al Marzooqi / The National
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ABU DHABI // As American-curriculum high school students get ready to write the redesigned SAT this summer, experts are split on the value of the changes made to the college admission test.

The College Board, a non-profit organisation that owns the SAT, will be introducing the new test to students in the United States on March 5. Students who write the test abroad won’t have to sit for it until May 7.

The test is written by students in grades 11 and 12 and used by many American colleges and universities as a measure of the prospective student’s knowledge and their ability to apply what they have learned.

“During the process of redesigning the exam, the College Board International team engaged in conversations about the SAT with educators throughout the world,” said José A. Rios, spokesman for the College Board. “We also held meetings with university admission leaders from across the US, which included specific discussions on issues related to the international student experience. Their input and feedback helped ensure the exam would remain relevant and meaningful for international students. We have also rigorously pretested the exam, through content reviews and individual item testing, to ensure it is valid and fair for all students. The result is an exam that’s fair to all students and appropriate for the purpose of assessing students’ college and career readiness.”

The new test has a new grading scale that allows students to earn a composite score between 400 and 1,600 points on reading, writing and maths. There is also an optional essay-writing section, but the grade for the optional essay writing section will not be factored into the student’s total score. In the old SAT, the essay was compulsory and students could earn between 600 to 2,400 points across all sections. Another major change to the scoring is that students will no longer be penalised for guessing. In the old test, if students left a question blank or if they got the answer wrong, they were deducted extra points.

In the new test, “all multiple-choice questions are scored the same way: one point for each correct answer and zero points for incorrect answers,” according to The College Board.

Students are now given three hours to complete 154 questions across three sections, reading, writing and maths. An additional 50 minutes will be allotted for the optional essay. Whereas, before March, they had three hours and 45 minutes to complete 171 questions.

The content has also been changed throughout. The new maths section is focused on high school level maths and includes a number of questions that students must answer without using a calculator.

“Big change,” said Barbara Drake, a former teacher who now runs SAT test prep courses around the world with Academic Services International. “Before you could use a calculator for everything. There’s good and bad there. I truly believe that students should be able to do some simple math on their own without having to grab a calculator.”

There is also more reading in the maths section and more graphs and charts in the reading sections, said Mrs Drake, who was recently in the country to run a weekend SAT prep course for students at the American International School, Abu Dhabi.

“Here is a huge change,” said Mrs Drake. “They have put graphs and charts throughout the test. Now you have to read and interpret the graphs in all sections, which I think is a skill that every child should have. I see that as a good thing. I think what they’re trying to do is take science and history and maths and reading and writing and immersing them together. It’s more relevant for the students.”

When it comes to testing the student’s vocabulary, the new test will ask students to define the words in the context that they appear in a reading passage.

“They took out some of the obscure words,” said Mrs Drake. “They used to have what they called the list of SAT level words and there were some that I’ve never seen in my life. Now what they’re doing is they’ll give a word that has many meanings and the choices are all of those meanings and you have to pick which one it was from the context. So, you really do have to know the meaning of the word.”

But not everyone agrees the changes are positive.

“Many higher education leaders have recognized that these changes are largely cosmetic, benefiting neither high school students nor the admissions process,” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing.

Since the new test was announced, more than 50 American colleges and universities have joined a growing list of more than 800 four-year post-secondary schools that have adopted “test-optional” policies, said Mr Schaeffer.

“Admissions officers who have reviewed the literature also understand that an applicant’s high school record, particularly grades and course rigor, is a better predictor of undergraduate success than three hours of filling in bubbles on Saturday morning,” said Mr Schaeffer.

Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, also raised doubts of the value of the new SAT, saying it has lost academic prestige over the years. The new test is also “another step toward eliminating intellectual rigor,” said Mr Wood.

“The new SAT switches from five possible answers to four and jettisons the penalty for guessing,” said Mr Wood. “Vocabulary is dumbed down. And test-takers are prompted to figure everything out from ‘context.’ Math is transformed in the direction of reading problems. Some observers are complaining that these changes make the test “harder.” I don’t see it.  They make an easy test even easier. Of course a test that is intrinsically easy can still seem hard if the students themselves are less well prepared.”

Samer Abdallah, student counsellor at the AISA where students were taking part in the weekend SAT test preparation course, said he will reserve his judgements until after students have taken the test.

“We can read about the changes all we want, but until the test comes, until we go through it, we’re not really going to have a good scope of it,” said Mr Abdallah. “It’s such a stressful, packed test that there’s always some uncertainty with it. You give them a little bit of comfort by telling them take it twice or three times. I recommend all students to take it twice just so they can redo it.”