The Truth Behind the Spin on the Changes to the SAT

It seems like every 10 years, the College Board makes significant changes to the test that has been around since 1926, the test that was originally based on an I.Q. administered to WWI soldiers, the test that has been notorious for putting stress on students for generations.

Let’s cover some history of the SAT.

In 1959, in walks the ACT as an upstart competitor to the SAT. It might not have been much of a threat at the time because the ACT was a test that, for the most part, students took if they were from the midwest, Rocky Mountains, or the South. But in 1989, in an attempt to claim market-share, ACT changed its format from a purely social studies section to reading while simultaneously changing a natural science section to science reasoning while maintaining their English and math sections. Then the ACT began marketing its exam as an achievement test based on classroom learning as opposed to an aptitude test like the SAT. Not long thereafter, students from across the country began taking the exam as an SAT alternative.

About five years later, in the spring of 1995, when College Board recentered the score scale for the SAT, it claimed that it did so to reflect the test-taking population. In essence, College Board’s rationale to recenter the scores was to make it easier for parents and students to find the mean. With the previous SAT revision in 1941, a score of 500 had been considered average. But between 1941 and 1995, that mean score of 500 dropped to 424, and because 424 could not be interpreted as a mean by parents and students, a score of 420 was then recentered to 500. Prior to 1995, if a student earned 1350, they would have the mean score for admission to most highly selective colleges. Then when College Board made this change, that same composite of 1350 recentered to 1410.

Fast forward to 2005. The University of California threatened to drop the SAT because it didn’t reflect what students learn in the classroom. College Board, upset that it could lose its largest customer, redesigned the exam. The name — SAT — which had previously stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test was changed to the Scholastic Assessment Test. With the new test, College Board encouraged students to use calculators, added higher-level mathematics questions, changed the name of the verbal section to critical reading, increased the number of reading passages, and required students to write an essay. Lastly, the scale (previously 1600) was changed to 2400. With this change, highly selective colleges, which previously required three Subject Tests (with a mandatory Subject Test in Writing), now only required two.

While the addition of the essay was added to compete with ACT’s “optional writing” section, it was also sparked by a growing concern that because too many students were submitting professionally written essays, colleges needed some basis to assess a student’s actual writing ability. But the essay didn’t work for a number reasons. In fact, College Board now admits that to score well on the essay, all a student had to do was go into the test prepared with some examples from literature, history or personal experience that could be tweaked to fit any prompt, include some high level vocabulary words, write legibly and complete two pages — quantity being more important than quality. And the time-pressed admissions counselors rarely read the SAT essay or gave much weight to the writing section. They continued to use the 1600 scale, valuing the critical reading and math and considering the writing section as a third Subject Test.

Now in 2014, College Board is admitting that the 2005 version was not fairer than the previous one, and so yet another version of the SAT is planned for 2016. No longer will there be a 2400 scale. The 1600 scale is back and the new evidence-based essay will be optional. While we suspect highly selective colleges will continue to require this essay, if history repeats itself, we doubt they will give it much weight. As for some other changes, the new SAT exam will not have obscure vocabulary words. There will also be no penalty for incorrect answers and a digital version of the test will be offered.

In an effort to level the playing field between affluent and low-income students, College Board has teamed with Khan Academy to offer free test prep. When the SAT was first designed and up until very recently, College Board claimed that it was not an exam that students could prepare for. Test-takers spending $4.5 billion a year on test prep counters their argument. So we wonder if this “free” test prep will translate into higher revenue for College Board.

And we have to wonder: Why now?

Because David Coleman, president of the College Board, criticized the SAT, saying it had “become disconnected from the work of our high schools,” that students weren’t being tested on material learned in the classroom and that low-income students needed the opportunity for test prep.

What do we think?

We think David Coleman’s rhetoric is educational jargon to counter inroads made by the ACT. The ACT is now a high school graduation requirement in 12 states. The SAT is a graduation requirement in three states. For the past four years, more students have taken the ACT than the SAT.

Testing is a business and David Coleman’s acknowledgement may lead one to question the value of testing from the standpoint of college admissions. Over the past 30 years, a growing number of colleges have eliminated the requirement of either the SAT or the ACT. Currently, there are about 900 colleges that don’t require either exam.

So Mr. Coleman, while your rationale for these changes seems commendable, it’s difficult not to question whether these changes are being made to increase College Board’s profitability in a race for market dominance.


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