Why the New SAT Could Be a Disaster--for Students and the College Board

Whenever my students (or their parents) complain about the necessity of the SAT, I give them this example: Suppose the SAT and ACT didn’t exist. Two students apply to the same college. Student 1 was a successful student (A’s and B’s, some honors/AP classes, some activities and leadership experience) at the most difficult private school in the area. Student 2 attended a tiny high school in the middle of nowhere that had few offerings--no honors classes, no guidance counselors, few activities. Student 2 had perfect grades, but no one from Student 2’s high school had ever applied to this college before. How does the college compare Student 1 with Student 2? How might Student 1 have done at Student 2's high school? Or vice versa? Will Student 2 be able to handle the rigor of classes at the college? If only there were some standardized way of comparing the two students… Perhaps a test that measured the critical reasoning abilities and basic English and math skills needed to succeed in a college classroom?

The SAT does a beautiful job of helping colleges compare students across schools. It does help predict first year college GPA, as well as 4th year GPA and future income. It is as consistent and fair as any standardized test out there, and the rigor that goes into each question is well-documented.

As most everyone has heard by now, the College Board is rolling out a new SAT in 2016. The primary motive behind the impending change is to address claims that the SAT can be “gamed” or “beaten” through test-prep techniques. The College Board wants to make a test that is fairer and more open, one that gives students from all walks of life an equal opportunity to succeed. Given the changes that have been announced, I suspect the new SAT may end up doing the exact opposite.


When the College Board came out with a new SAT in 2005, the changes were minimal and well tested. The most drastic change was the addition of the writing section, which largely already existed in the form of the SAT Writing Subject Test (formerly SAT II Writing Test) and was becoming an application requirement for an increasing number of selective colleges. In the Critical Reading section (formerly Verbal), the notoriously abstruse (and arguably biased) analogy questions were cut while the more straightforward sentence completion questions stayed. In the Math section, the complex quantitative comparison questions were removed. The 2005 changes essentially simplified the SAT, eschewing question types that confounded many first-time test takers in favor of questions that anyone could understand on a first read-through.

Now, the College Board appears to be moving in the opposite direction. The SAT changes that have been announced give every indication of a test that will get more complex, and thus, more susceptible both to coaching and to the strength of a student’s high school. Let’s dive into some of the proposed changes to speculate on what effects they might have:

Eliminating the guessing penalty. The SAT guessing penalty, as it stands today, ensures that a student who guesses on every single question will, on average, score the same as a student who leaves the entire test blank. It is an equalizer, meant to ensure that students who guess randomly have no advantage over those who leave questions blank. On the 2016 SAT, students who know the advantages of random guessing (read: those who have been prepped for the test) will have an advantage over those students who leave questions blank (read: those who have not done test prep).

Reading passages taken directly from founding documents. From the College Board's new SAT announcement:

“Each exam will include a passage drawn from the Founding Documents of America or the Great Global Conversation they inspire — texts like the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers and "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

I’ve already highlighted the irony of the College Board taking away arcane vocabulary while adding historical documents. More importantly, how many of these ‘Founding Documents’ are prominent enough to include? Just as AP US History students can study a relatively limited number of source documents and expect a few of them to show up on the DBQ, dedicated students (read again: those with parents willing to pay for tutoring) might be able to study important documents in advance, gaining an advantage.

The essay. I don't love the SAT essay in its current format. It encourages a formulaic approach and penalizes risk-taking and creativity. But it is straightforward. It uses simple, broad, prompts that encourage students to take a stance and make a cogent argument. This is a fundamental task that any student planning on going to college should be able to recognize instantly and do effectively.

The essay on the new SAT will not be so simple. Every essay will be a passage-based document analysis using the following prompt:

“As you read the passage consider how the author uses evidence, reasoning, and stylistic or persuasive elements to add power to the ideas expressed.”

It seems highly likely that students who attend strong high schools and undergo test prep will have a huge advantage on this complex document-analysis task.

Math. In my opinion, the current math section of the SAT is nearly perfect. It requires prior knowledge of only the most fundamental algebra and geometry concepts, manipulating those concepts into questions that are often more puzzle than math problem. Why is this so great? Let’s say there is a student with a natural aptitude for math, but that student went to such a weak high school that she never was given the opportunity to master the nuances of advanced algebra and geometry, let alone trigonometry and calculus. As long as she picked up the fundamentals, the current SAT is the perfect arena for her to demonstrate to colleges her potential in mathematics.

The subtext of the changes to the Math section (increased focus on “the heart of algebra” and “passport to advanced math”) is that there will be less focusing on reasoning and more on content. If it turns out to be like ACT Math, the Math section of the new SAT would reflect less on a student’s potential and more on the quality of her high school. Which, I believe, is the exact opposite of what the College Board hopes to achieve with the new SAT.


The College Board’s unstated goal for the new SAT is to counteract the SAT’s steady loss of market share to the ACT. From a business perspective, this is a terrible decision. I believe the reason the SAT is losing ground to the ACT has nothing to do with the nature of the tests themselves and everything to do with geography. (I've relegated my theories on the SAT's market share decline to an endnote because I have yet to research data to substantiate them.)

The two tests remain just about even, with the SAT's market share at 48% for the class of 2013. With the dominance of the SAT on the coasts and the ACT in the heartland fully entrenched, why would a new SAT convince students in the middle of the country to switch? I don't see how it could. However, drastic changes to the SAT, especially ones that make the test more complicated, could easily make students on the coasts switch to the suddenly more familiar and simpler ACT. In essence, the College Board has nothing to gain with a drastic SAT overhaul, but a lot to lose.


The College Board is releasing more information about the new SAT tomorrow (April 16, 2014). For the sake of the SAT and the students who take it, I hope that it proves me wrong. Check back here and follow me on Twitter (@PremierEdgePrep) for commentary and updates on the new SAT.




The two reasons why I think the SAT is losing market share to the ACT:

1) Students applying to highly competitive colleges are far more concentrated in SAT territory than in ACT territory. These students are the most likely candidates to take both tests to try to get a leg up on the competition. This boosts the ACT's numbers.

2) With the gradual loss of many of this country's manual labor jobs overseas, more students in the middle of the country who once might have counted on a stable career in a factory or other blue-collar job can no longer do so. These students are increasingly going to college (and thus, taking the ACT), while inner-city school systems in coastal cities continue to struggle to produce college-bound students.