In what seems to be turning into a once-a-decade ritual, we’ll see another newly made-over SAT in the spring of 2016.
The changes include a return to the old 1600-point scale, an overhaul of the essay, and a de-emphasis of the uncommon vocabulary that brought the phrase “SAT word” into common use.
Whenever a major standardized test is changed, there is, understandably, a lot of anxiety among test-takers. Having a new test that is an unknown quantity can be a disadvantage to students for a number of reasons.
The current SAT has a vast quantity of high-quality, released practice materials. Through various channels, students can obtain nine real, previously administered SAT tests from the College Board. Additionally, the College Board provides 14 tests it has written but never administered to students, as well as hundreds of practice questions. Major test preparation companies have further made dozens of high quality practices tests and thousands of practice questions to help prepare students.
When the new SAT is released, there will only be a handful of tests available from the College Board, and none will be real tests that were given to students. The initial tests made by test preparation companies will be of much lower quality since their tests will be based only on best guesses of what the new test will look like, rather than close analysis of real test items.
The ACT, on the other hand, has remained largely unchanged for decades; there is a vast catalogue of relevant, high-quality practice material produced both by ACT and by test prep companies.
A new test means new approaches to questions. Sure, some of the test prep strategies used for the previous version of the SAT will migrate more or less unchanged to the new version, but many will require tweaks. Some old techniques may no longer be particularly useful or relevant, and new ones will emerge. It will take at least a few months for the experts to begin to attain the level of understanding necessary to adapt existing strategies and to develop new plans of action.
By contrast, the techniques and best practices for approaching the ACT have been tested for years.
While the College Board has provided an overview of the content breakdown for the new test, we won’t be sure of the minutiae of that breakdown until we’ve seen a few test cycles of content. When the test last changed, some promised new question types barely appeared on actual tests, and other questions were more prominent than anticipated. Even the tests the College Board released in advance of the new SAT weren’t exactly like the real exam.
The content breakdown of the ACT is well-known and predictable at this point.
Whenever there’s a new test, it takes schools a little while to figure out exactly what that test is telling them. As Brendan Mernin, a New York City tutor at Noodle Pros who witnessed the SAT makeovers of 1994 and 2005, notes, “The colleges you are applying to know how to read and understand ACT scores because the ACT curve has been consistent for years now. Colleges know how to put your ACT scores in context. For the SAT, although they have many experts who will test the curve before the big rollout, there’s no substitute for administering the test to a million kids. Until they do, you can expect them to tinker with the scoring and even the test content, leaving the early SAT testers to serve as unwitting subjects in an experiment.”
Several of the released math questions seem designed to be compatible with the Common Core. While most states are in the process of rolling out a version of the Common Core curriculum, this overhaul is far from complete. Moreover, several states have opted out of the Common Core or are considering doing so. As a result, a number of the new SAT math questions are based on concepts that aren’t commonly covered in the math curricula of many high schools.
While there is some difficult math on the ACT, again, it is a known quantity.
In the new version of the SAT, there are two types of math sections: Students are permitted to use a calculator on one section but not on the other. Yet, several questions on the calculator-permitted section not only don’t require a calculator, but are impossible to solve using one. This is likely to confuse many students, and will require familiarity with the test before they adjust to these — and other — realities of the new SAT.
For the reasons above, I will strongly encourage my students in the class of 2017 to take the ACT, and will consider the SAT only if a student has insurmountable issues with the ACT or doesn’t show the kind of improvement I’d expect. It simply doesn’t make sense for students to deal with a test that is such an unknown quantity when there is a perfectly fine, well-known alternative.