College Board contemplating change to SAT

Feb. 7, 2006, midnight | By Lois Bangiolo | 18 years, 5 months ago

Students may be able to choose sections to retake

College Board is considering a split-up of the SAT that would allow students to take only one of the three sections — Critical Reading, Math and Writing — at a time. This proposed change will be reviewed at the May meeting of the College Board SAT committee and would allow students to improve their scores by retaking chosen sections in one sitting.

This idea is being "considered at the request of numerous college admissions counselors at the high school and college level," said John Barnhill, incoming chair of the SAT committee and Director of Admissions and Records at Florida State University. The counselors were concerned with the increased length and cost of the new SAT, said Barnhill.

Seventy years of standardization

Before the SAT, there were the "college boards." These tests consisted of a series of essays that covered nine subjects. They were some of the first standardized tests that allowed colleges to compare students regardless of schooling and location using an objective measure. In 1926, the College Board, which designed and administered these tests, created the SAT.

The SAT is a standardized test given throughout the country as a measure of potential success in college and, like the first college boards, essentially serves as a college entrance exam, according to Barnhill. Colleges use it as one factor in choosing to admit new students.

Since its creation, the SAT and the students who take it have been subjected to various changes. The last content changes were in 1994, when open-ended math questions and longer reading passages were added and antonym questions in the verbal section were removed. That year also marked the beginning of calculator use on the SAT.

"An already long test"

In 2001, The University of California (UC) system, especially its former president Richard C. Atchison, began calling for new changes in the SAT. Since the test had not been changed for seven years, the UC was concerned about the validity of the test. "We wanted to make sure it was still legitimate and still useful in predicting success in college," said Ravi Poorsina, spokesperson for the office of the President of the UC. The UC felt that the test was no longer relevant to high school curricula, said Poorsina, especially after their study found that the SAT II Subject tests were better predictors of college success than the SAT. In his keynote address to the UC in Feb. 2001, Atchinson called for the removal of the SAT as a factor in admissions since he believed it was no longer significant, a weighty consideration for the College Board.

The College Board created a new design for the SAT based on the suggestions the UC had made, although their website states that changes were not made solely to appease the UC. Changes include the elimination of analogies and the addition of a writing section.

What is known as the new SAT was introduced in March 2005. For the first time, the SAT included a writing section, made up of both an essay and multiple choice writing skills questions. Changes were also made to the two original sections of the test. Questions in the Math section now include topics up through Algebra II, and the quantitative comparison questions no longer exist. The revamped Verbal Section was given a new name — Critical Reading — and analogies were removed from the section. According to the College Board web site, all of these changes were made to "better reflect what students are learning in high school, and to include writing, which is an important skill for success in college and beyond," in accordance with the UC's belief that the SAT was no longer in conjunction with high school curriculum.

Technology is partly responsible for the new essay section. The committee that suggested the 1994 changes had made one further recommendation: add a writing section. That suggestion was not implemented in 1994, but in 2005, the wide availability of computers and the internet made it now possible to easily transmit large numbers of student essays to graders.

Additions to the SAT include not only new sections and new questions but also a lengthened time. The SAT today clocks in at three hours and 45 minutes, an hour and fifteen minutes longer than the two and one-half hour old SAT.

Barnhill said that the SAT has always been extensive, even before the new writing sections were incorporated. "I have been in this business for a long time, and I have never had a student tell me that the SAT was a short test. It has always been long and arduous," he said.

Before "adding length to an already long test," said Barnhill, the College Board did extensive studies on the issue of student fatigue. These studies determined that the length of the test had no negative impact on student performance.

As counselors have found, student experiences with the SAT have belied these studies. Cathy Henderson Stein, College/Career Information Center Assistant at Blair, has heard many complaints over the length of the test. "That's what the kids tell me," she said of the extensive test. "It is very taxing." Senior Sarah duRivage-Jacobs, who has taken the new SAT, agrees. "You go in there and you're there for four hours. When you get out, you can't spell words… you just want to take a nap," she said.

But according to an informal survey on Jan. 9 and 10 during 5b lunch of 100 Blair students who have taken the new SAT, only 38 percent are in favor of splitting up the SAT, despite the length. These students believe that exhaustive hours spent at one time is preferable over the hassle involved in going to take the test multiple times. "One time is better than a lot," said senior Scott Rathbone.

Bernard Phelan, a member of the test development committee for the SAT, does not believe that the length of the SAT is unmanageable. "Students need to be able to think for a sustained period of time," he said. "I don't think length should be a problem."

Different colleges, different opinions

According to the College Board web site, 100 percent of the Ivy League, 54 percent of the nation's public flagship universities and 64 percent of colleges in the major athletic conferences require and use the new writing section for admission.

Not all colleges are happy with the new writing section. Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. has not been using the writing section in their admissions decisions, in part because they did not feel a new writing section was necessary. "We haven't been considering it. Our approach is that we didn't ask for it, though we do reserve the right to use it," said John Nagel, senior assistant director of admissions at Georgetown. They have several concerns about the validity and usefulness of the new test and believe that since the test is so new, it is hard to assess the meaning of the new writing scores at present. "We didn't have any idea of what the scores will be. We didn't have any confidence in the new writing scores," said Nagel.

Georgetown also doubts the equity of the test. They feel that students who can afford to pay for SAT prep classes will have a great advantage on the essay and writing skills; by not considering the essay, they hope to "level it out" and make admission fair for all students regardless of income, said Nagel.

This does not mean that Georgetown does not value writing, Nagel said. When the SAT II Writing test was offered, Georgetown required it for admission. Because only the higher achieving students took this test, Nagel explained, it gave a better measure of writing skills. Students were only compared with other highly able students, instead of the greater number of students who take the general SAT.

The length, too, has raised some issues. "[The length] was certainly one of our concerns when we heard about it," said Nagel. "We were hoping that they'd put the writing last so students who were applying to colleges who didn't require it didn't have to take it," thus saving the time and energy of students who apply to schools such as Georgetown. He feels that spreading the test over a few days "might make it better," but he is not sure how students would feel about this change.

The "Alternative College Test"

The SAT is not the only college admission exam. Though more popular in the central United States, the Iowa-based ACT offers a shorter alternative to the newly lengthened SAT.

The ACT has four sections — English, Math, reading and science — with a total of 216 questions. The ACT recently added a new writing section but, according to Ed Colby at ACT Media Relations, this decision was not made in response to the SAT writing section "but rather in response to the expressed needs and desires of the colleges we serve," he said, the same reasoning expressed by the College Board. "Colleges," said Colby, "wanted a measure of students' writing skills to help them make admission decisions."

ACT and the College Board both made the choice to add a writing section at approximately the same time, though the College Board announced their decision publicly before the ACT. The Writing Test is a 30 minute essay section, which unlike the writing section for the SAT, is optional. The ACT can be taken with or without the essay, because according to a survey taken by the ACT, a large number of colleges said they would not be requiring a writing test, according to Colby. "About a third — a significant number — told us they would like to see a writing test added, but the majority told us they either had no intention of using the writing test or weren't sure, " said Colby. "Many of theses colleges already had some sort of writing skills assessment in their application process (e.g. a personal essay), and they didn't feel the need to add another test at students' expense." By making the writing test optional, only students who are applying to colleges that require the test need to take it.

Twenty percent of colleges now require the Writing Test, while another 20 are "recommending" that prospective students add the test to their ACT. Only seven out of the 34 four-year public and private universities in Maryland currently require that students submit writing scores from the ACT.

Far in the future

The SAT is not likely to change any time soon. While the College Board is "always looking for ways to improve the SAT for student, schools and colleges," said Kristin Carnahan of the College Board, "any consideration of changes to the SAT must be approached in a thorough and thoughtful manner, which requires a significant amount of time." A decision to split the SAT, if made, will require the assent of the Board of Trustees that governs College Board and will likely take several years to implement, Barnhill said.

Lois Bangiolo. Lois Bangiolo was born on March 14, pi day, an auspicious date as she is now in the math-science magnet. In addition to writing for Silver Chips Online she runs track and is secretary of the MBHS Key Club. More »

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