AUSTIN — Everybody loves to hate the SAT, but the breathtaking changes to the 88-year-old college entrance exam unveiled here last week caught just about everybody by surprise.
The new test, due in the spring of 2016, will make the dreaded essay optional and return the test's perfect score from its current 2,400-point-scale to 1,600 points. It will shrink total test time by 45 minutes and abandon vocabulary questions built around what even College Board President David Coleman conceded is a "wall of obscure words."
In its place, he said, will be a test that more accurately tracks what students learn in school, focuses more tightly on a few key concepts and doesn't force kids to rely on expensive test-prep courses or "last-minute tricks or cramming" to do well.
"It is time to admit that the SAT and ACT have become far too disconnected from the work of our high schools," he said during last week's announcement. "We aim to offer worthy challenges, not artificial obstacles."
The new changes, the first since 2005, come in the face of several recent challenges for the College Board itself, including skepticism from colleges about the test's usefulness and competition from the rival ACT test.
Also, higher college-going rates for low-income and minority students and more competition for slots in college freshman classes are pushing educators to ensure that all students leave high school ready for the rigors of college. But the rise in college-going is accompanied by a disturbing statistic: By the College Board's own research, the percentage of "college ready" high school graduates has been essentially unchanged since 2009 at about 43%.
The new test, Coleman said, is a "call to action" to make the test a better tool to help students get ready for college.
"From my perspective, David is doing what he said he would do," said Kati Haycock of The Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group for low-income and minority students. "This is a guy who cares about all kids having the opportunity to learn rigorous content, and the things that are important to learn, not just random bits."
Haycock noted that the number of low-income and minority students wanting to go to college, often for the first time in the history of their families, is "off the charts," but that many of these kids are dropping out once they get to college.
Recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Education show that from 1972 to 2009, the percentage of low-income high school graduates immediately enrolling in college jumped from 23% to 55%. But their overall rate of attaining bachelor's degrees by age 24 remained essentially unchanged, from 7% to 8%.
"The idea that it's enough for kids to aspire and enroll is clearly not sufficient," Haycock said. Many make it to college, "but a lot of them are crashing and burning."
Coleman himself may have helped force some of the new SAT changes. Before he even arrived at the College Board in October 2012, he previously led the national effort to create new Common Core academic standards in math and reading for the USA's public school students. Forty-five states have adopted the standards, and many are gearing up to test students on them for the first time this spring.
Common Core standards have generated controversy on both the political left and right, but eventually all Common Core states are expected to adopt end-of-11th-grade tests that measure students' college readiness — essentially what the SAT and ACT tests do now. Colleges in several states have committed to using the new tests for placement, not admission, said Haycock, but she wonders whether tests like the SAT would soon become redundant.
In his announcement, Coleman took direct aim at SAT test prep companies, saying, "It is time for the College Board to say in a clear voice that the culture and practice of test preparation that now surrounds admissions exams drives the perception of inequality and injustice in our country." Such preparation, he said, "reinforces privilege rather than merit." But his solution wasn't to make the test impossible to prepare for: He announced a partnership with the popular online Khan Academy "to provide free SAT test preparation for the world."
Salman Khan, the site's founder, said the new partnership would provide students with diagnoses of their abilities and knowledge, followed by activities, exercises and simulations custom-tailored to their performance. He said the site already offers game-like "missions" in which students can learn algebra and geometry. "This is going to be an SAT mission," he said, with students eventually invited to begin their college-preparation lessons as early as third grade. The site already has about 10 million unique users a month and the new features could bring in millions more because about 1.7 million high schoolers take more than 3 million SAT tests each year.
Seppy Basili, vice president of college admissions and K-12 programs for New York-based Kaplan Test Prep, said he welcomed the changes. "I think in many ways it will be much fairer because it is much more fair to test kids on the things they've been doing in school," he said.
He noted the Khan Academy partnership and said that proved, in spite of the College Board's longtime insistence, that test prep can help kids improve their scores. "For us, it's not quite a valedictory, but it's an interesting moment," he said. "SAT test prep obviously works, and for us that was kind of a heartening moment."
In announcing the changes, Coleman was also responding to competition from the rival ACT test, which for the first time in 2012 enrolled more students than the SAT. Both tests are under pressure from colleges' growing skepticism about whether a one-time exam really tells admissions counselors enough about prospective students.
More than 800 colleges and universities already make submitting scores optional. A study released last month by Bates College researchers found that there were only "trivial differences" in the academic performance of students who did and didn't submit SAT or ACT scores with their applications. Cumulative GPAs of the two groups differed by only .05 points, and graduation rates differed by just .6 percentage points.
A 2008 UCLA report found that the SAT "is a relatively poor predictor of student performance" and that high-school grades and other tests that tap what students actually do in school are more valid indicators of how students are likely to do in college. "As an admissions criterion, the SAT has a more adverse impact on poor and minority applicants than high-school grades, class rank and other measures of academic achievement," the researchers found.
"There's a fundamental problem with the SAT," economist Anthony Carnevale said. "It was a test that was built in the '30s, to try to find Einstein behind a plow out there."
Carnevale, who directs Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce and is a one-time vice president of the Educational Testing Service, which administers the test, said the SAT "has outlived its usefulness" because many educators now say a single test can't predict college success. "It predicts perfectly higher-income kids with good grades," he said.
But higher costs and shrinking government support are increasingly forcing colleges to rely on students from wealthy families — just the kinds of students who do well on the SAT. "The game is rigged and the colleges are helpless, just like the students are, because if you say, 'OK, I'm not going to play like this,' you're done. It's kind of an arms race."