Nothing About the SAT Has Really Changed

The big higher education news this week comes from the organization in charge of generating America’s most famous standardized test. There are big new changes to the SAT.

No, there aren’t. These changes are likely going to result in lots of new material for test prep companies and a little nervousness among high school students, who don’t know what they’re getting, but the trends in SAT scoring will stay pretty much the same.

According to a press release from the College Board, the organization has recognized a problem, and decided to make major corrections:

College Board President David Coleman today laid out the organization’s plans to move beyond delivering assessments to delivering opportunity — announcing initiatives designed to be used in concert with assessments to propel students toward college success. As part of those initiatives he presented changes to the SAT exam.

Each change in the redesigned SAT draws upon evidence of the knowledge and skills that are most essential for readiness and success, and the exam is also modeled on the work that students do in challenging high school courses.

More specifically, the new examination will:

  • have three sections: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, Math, and the Essay.
  • return to the 1600 scale. The essay will provide a separate score.
  • be approximately three hours in length, with an additional 50 minutes for the essay. The precise time of the exam will be affirmed through research.
  • be administered both in print and by computer in 2016.

This comes in addition to a new plan to give all poor children who take the SAT four fee waivers to apply to college and an agreement with “Khan Academy to provide the world with [online] free test preparation materials for the redesigned SAT.” But the major change here is that the SAT returns to the 1600 point scale and the essay section will be optional. The College Board also promises to redesign the vocabulary section to emphasize the words students are actually likely to encounter in college.

Some praised these changes. According to an editorial in the Tufts student newspaper:

The College Board’s revision of the SAT Reasoning Test and new free test prep offering through Khan Academy reflects an impressive shift toward testing skills that students actually utilize in the classroom and equalizing access to preparation via a proven non-profit.

And according to another piece, this one from the student newspaper of the University of Southern California, “such reforms promise to make a meaningful impact to students — particularly for those to whom costly test preparation isn’t an available luxury.”

Well no, we can basically see this as a public relations move. Indeed, the reasoning behind this change looks curiously similar to the justification the organization offered the last time it changed the scoring system, in 2005, adding the essay section so that it would be harder for people to use test prep to boost their scores.

This was in response to a threat by the University of California system, one of the most important revenue source for the College Board, to drop the SAT altogether because of UC’s realization that the SAT was something high school students were preparing for extensively (using expensive private classes), and SAT scores closely tracked family income.


This continued to be true after the changes introduced in 2005.


The new SAT, the College Board says, “confronts one of the greatest inequities around college entrance exams, namely the culture and practice of high-priced test preparation.”

But as Bob Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, an anti-standardized test group, said, “the revised test is unlikely to be better than the current one. It will not predict college success more accurately, assess low-income students more fairly, or be less susceptible to high-priced commercial coaching courses.”

The real problem here is that the trends shouldn’t be that surprising. The SATs are essentially an IQ test, which makes a lot of sense for an examination designed to measure people’s ability to succeed in college. SATs are always going to track along social class lies, in large part because IQ tracks pretty well generally along social class lines.

This new examination will no doubt result in lots of scrambling in America’s test prep industry, but the trends in terms of SAT scores in general and college admissions specifically are going to be exactly the same.

If you’re really worried about students cramming hard for the SAT, rich kids spending huge amounts of money to gain a few points on the test, and students cheating on the exam in order to generate the scores that will get them into the best schools, we have to place less importance on the SAT, not more.

Specifically, schools have to stop using arbitrary SAT cut off points for making decisions about admissions and scholarships, and parents and schools need to stop treating the SAT as if it represents a person’s entire value as a student.

Yes, intelligence matters in determining where someone should attend college, and colleges should be very interested in determining how smart and capable applicants to their school are.

Intelligence is one thing. But 30 or 60 or even 100 points on the SAT, doesn’t really mean much of anything in terms of someone’s ability to succeed in higher education. Those few extra points, however, are exactly why rich people spend so much money on test prep.

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer