SAT to be redesigned, focus more on classroom learning

The SAT — that anxiety-provoking test required for so many college applications — is being redesigned to focus more on classroom learning and less on brain teasers.

The College Board announced Wednesday that its revised SAT will be ready in the spring of 2016. The new version will have two parts, "evidence-based reading and writing" and math, and will return to a highest possible score of 1600. An optional essay question will be graded separately.


"I hope it takes some of the intense anxiety of this high-stakes exam away," said Barbara Gill, assistant vice president of undergraduate admissions at the University of Maryland, College Park and a College Board trustee.

By making the exam less mystifying and less dependent on test-taking strategies that can be taught, Gill believes the new test "is going to open up opportunities for students."


The College Board is revamping the SAT in part to address longtime criticism that minorities and low-income students are at a disadvantage in taking the test.

The last time the College Board changed the SAT was in 2005, when it added a writing section. The next version is being billed as one of the more substantive overhauls in the history of the test, which has roots dating to World War II.

"No longer will the SAT only have disconnected problems or tricky situations students won't likely see again," said David Coleman, the College Board's president, of the math portion. Instead, the math portion will focus on skills that research shows are most necessary for success in college.

The test, which is taken by 2 million students each year, will be shortened from 31/2 hours to about three hours, with the optional essay taking about 50 minutes. The current SAT has three parts, including an essay, and a total score of 2400. In another change, students won't be penalized for getting an answer wrong.

No more memorizing little-used vocabulary words on index cards, Coleman said. Instead, he suggested that high school students start preparing by studying America's historic documents, such as the Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers and "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."

On the new reading portion of the test, students will be asked to answer questions and justify their answers about original source materials, not just from famous works of literature as they do now, but from science and social studies texts.

"I am very excited to see the shift to evidence-based reading and writing in the proposed changes to the SAT," said Dennis Jutras, who taught at Polytechnic Institute and is now a city school administrator. "I always expected my students to take a position and defend that position with evidence and, based on what I am hearing today from College Board, I am more confident that they are moving toward measuring learning rather than measuring memory."

Tyrone Holmes, a senior at City College in Baltimore who will be enrolling at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, said he was pleased with his SAT score but felt that parts of the exam's reading section were designed for him to fail.


"The reading part can be pretty hard because it uses words that you wouldn't normally hear in a conversation, in college, or in a career," Holmes said. "It's difficult to remember the definitions of a word that you never use."

Holmes said any changes that would make the SAT more accessible are worthwhile.

College Board officials reached out to numerous college guidance counselors and university admissions officers before considering how to rewrite the test. First seen as a tool to help colleges identify promising students across the country who did not have opportunities for higher education, research has shown that the SAT must be combined with grades earned in high school to accurately predict a student's chance of success in freshman college classes.

Some critics have said that families who can afford to pay for expensive test prep have an advantage and that the test is more a gauge of family income than college readiness.

College Board officials said they have made several changes to give lower-income students greater access to higher education. Through a partnership with the College Board, Khan Academy will offer free SAT test preparation online to anyone in the world. The preparation will include online video lessons and extensive use of formerly used test questions.

David M. Phillips, vice provost for admissions and financial aid at the Johns Hopkins University, applauded the College Board's effort to try to level the playing field by giving more students access, particularly to high-quality preparation.


"I love the fact that they are trying to create more opportunity," Phillips said. "That is the most exciting, the focus on low-income access."

Besides test preparation, the College Board will give low-income students four waivers to cover college application fees, long seen as a barrier to filing multiple applications.

"By proactively providing fee waivers, the College Board will help us to identify those students who really need assistance with college access," said Aaron Basko, assistant vice president for enrollment management and career services at Salisbury University on the Eastern Shore.

He added that the test will put more emphasis "on the classic elements — analysis, problem-solving and reading of the great documents of history — that predict student success."

The redesign appears to mirror the recent focus in education on the Common Core standards now being taught in Maryland. The standards call for students to learn fewer concepts in math but in greater depth. They focus more on analysis, reading and understanding different types of texts and writing in English.

The College Board said it will be testing students on that deeper understanding. Before becoming president of the College Board, Coleman was instrumental in the writing of the Common Core.


Jeremy Goldman, guidance counselor at Pikesville High School in Baltimore County, said he believes his students will transition well to the new SAT. He pointed out that schools will have two years to prepare their current ninth-grade classes, which will be the first to take the redesigned test.

"The whole message is that it is not a test to prepare for, it is reflecting your classroom preparation," said Goldman, adding that students ought to be ready for the test because Maryland is a Common Core state.

But Hopkins' Phillips remains somewhat skeptical about the redesign.

"This is a high-level blueprint. I think there are a lot of devils in the details. I am eager to see what kind of form it takes," he said, adding that colleges will want to see research that shows the new test is a valid predictor of college success.

"Most people are in agreement about moving away from testing the esoteric language and nonsubstantive concepts," Phillips said. "We need to be cautious and understand the research behind these moves before we can understand whether they will be good for the process."

Baltimore Sun reporter Erica L. Green contributed to this article.