Yesterday I attended a presentation delivered by a representative of the College Board that offered a very thorough explanation of the infrastructure around the New SAT. While the first test date for the New SAT is not until March, the PSAT tests delivered to students in the eighth and ninth grade, as well as the tenth and eleventh-grade PSATs have already been redesigned with the new test in mind.

The College Board built a very promising infrastructure around the New SAT in terms of a student portal, online student tutorials (through Kahn Academy) and a teacher’s guide, none of which was part of the most recent versions of the Old SAT. The Web-based portal also provides college/career search tools as well as an assessment of a student’s potential to move into Advanced Placement coursework later in high school. The portal is somewhat customized to how the student scored on the PSAT as well as the SAT.

What I like most about the student portal is that a student can drill down to find detailed information on the areas where s/he needs to improve in order to score higher the next time that s/he takes the test. Of course all of this presumes that the vast majority of high school students  who take the New SAT, as well as teachers, will have access to a computer to use this information to advantage. It also presumes that the technology will work as it is supposed to work.

The New SAT is not the same test as the Old SAT. The reading comprehension is based on passages and data interpretation in social studies and the sciences as well as Founding Documents in the history of the United States, such as the Constitution. It also has fewer Math questions and about ten minutes less time devoted to Math. However, the College Board reports that the math problems will be more relevant. Their label is: Math that Matters.

However, the new test has one section that allows students to use a calculator and one that does not. I honestly do not know enough about how high school mathematics is taught to say whether a class in Algebra I and II or Geometry using a calculator is more appropriate than one that does not. The playing field would be more level if all students did not use a calculator when taking the test.

Since college admissions offices will not review students who have taken the New SAT until next year’s admissions cycle, it is difficult for anyone, except possibly the College Board’s test developers and researchers, to determine the “predictive value” of the new test.

But I believe that it is possible to make some predictions, since the presidential election cycle will pick up at about the same time as the first New SAT is administered to its first test takers. And here they are:

Teachers will need to teach to the test to make the test work better. The major issue with a suite of tests like the New SAT is that students need to be coached more thoroughly in high school to not be discouraged about college should they score low on the PSAT exams. There is an ugly reality to tests such as these: very few test takers could ever aspire to go from a very low score to a perfect score.

Preparing for a test such as the new SAT or the ACT working with a part-time tutor is not the same as working with a high school teacher to get progressively better grades in a Math or English class. It takes time outside of school, unless teachers teach to the test, use the tools that the College Board has developed as well as those that the ACT will develop, and work with those organizations to refine them. The College Board did an excellent job at research before the rollout. However, there will always be a need for feedback and transparency.

But I would also bet that teachers resent having the College Board “dictating” curriculum as they would resent their state board of education for having their hands in it. If this “educational divide” stays wide, I doubt the country as a whole will see higher mean or median scores from a test-taking population.

The New SAT as well as updates to the ACT will result in a rethinking about high school exit examinations. The New SAT is marketed as a suite of tests including the eighth/ninth grade PSAT,  the tenth/eleventh grade PSAT and the SAT. The ramp-up test to the ACT is called the PLAN. If students are introduced to a suite of tests, there is no need for states to have their own high school exit exams, even for students who do not plan to go to college.

However, the test providers will need to do a better job at allowing teachers and school counselors to view test results for groups of students so that they can help them to do better in the areas where they are weakest. Done right this can help to raise high school graduation rates while relieving school systems of the headaches of administering a state-run high school exit exam. Then governors of both parties could brag about a budget cut that hurt practically no family in their state.

There will be more concern about a “digital divide” as well as online instruction. The Khan Academy materials that the College Board is using to help students prepare for their tests are a good idea, as long as there are up-to-date computers and human support to go along with them. Online instruction works better as a supplement to in-person instruction than as a replacement for it.

A smarter course of action would have been for the College Board and/or Kahn Academy to certify teachers as prepared to teach the Math and/or Critical Reading sections of these tests. The video tools are fine. But its not like you have a person to ask, unless you have a teacher in school, or a tutor outside of school to help. And then there’s the consideration of access to computers and the Internet.

More colleges will go test optional. I strongly doubt that admissions officers at schools that must work hard to fill a class will take more time to consider the relevance of a revised standardized test, especially if their focus is neither in business nor the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects where a high math score is an asset in seeking admission.

The greatest value of the SAT and the ACT for a college admissions office is that the scores can be used to separate candidates from the same school or school system. That is extremely useful to schools such as large state universities that receive a high volume of applications. However, it is not useful to schools that have less competitive admissions. Since more of the less competitive test-mandatory schools cannot afford to scare off students who did not do well on the SAT or ACT, they will shift to test optional. But they will also put their own placement tests to use.

In the ideal I would want to know how a student scored on the PSAT to determine if a test-optional strategy is the best course of action in seeking a college that is a fit in other ways. Why add anxiety to a student’s life if it does not have to be there?

More colleges will re-test students in Math and Reading. I never understood why I had to take two Math placement exams before I took a single college class. I took one at Rutgers during the May before I graduated high school, then one during the Fall freshman orientation. I had to guess that Rutgers did not trust my SAT scores to be a valid indicator of my Math skills. I also had to take a Writing test. If more schools go test-optional, they will still need to give some form of test to place students into Math and Expository Writing classes, if they do not already do so.

I understand, based on the materials that I received, the presentation I heard and the experiences that I have, why the College Board redesigned not only the SAT, but also the infrastructure around it.

But my preference for most test-taking students, at least for now, is to take the ACT. There are more people capable of providing tutorial support for that test. There are also more print materials to support it, especially for the high school junior who wants to begin preparation for a March test date now, if s/he has not started preparing already.

Next year it might be a different story.







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