Now that the SAT has been revised… let’s revise how we use the SAT

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute

Two days ago, more than a quarter million students around the country sat down for the inaugural debut of the newly revised SAT. The College Board had promised a new SAT to be more representative of their prior learning in school. Traditionally, the ACT is a test that is very reflective of school-based learning, whereas the SAT was broader and more abstract. For instance, while the ACT would ask very specific questions about academic school content, the SAT relied heavily on strategies such as analogies, which would ask the test-taker if they understood the relationship between a set of words. It is argued that students who had taken Latin in school had a unique advantage for this section because of their knowledge of root words.


As the market more recently moved toward a common-core driven alignment, and as the ACT continues to eat into the College Board’s ownership of college entrance exam (remember that the College Board’s original and legal name is College Entrance Examination Board), the Board felt pressure to revise the test. In fact, to do so, they hired former Senior Vice President of ACT, Cyndie Schmeiser, to head up the revamp.

This morning, the Chronicle published an article by Eric Hoover complete with tweets from students about their new SAT experience on Saturday. Here are some of their comments (#3 is my personal fav):

  1. Never getting into college after that #SAT.
  2. Offing myself is a valid option after that test.
  3. I wish the math section would have at least taken me out to dinner before screwing me.
  4. Can u say clown college #sat.
  5. What the in the hell was that #sat.
  6. My brain is fried.
  7. SAT test essay optional … Do you really wonder why #Trumpocalypse is upon US? Last math section was worse than Trump … #SAT.
  8. My son just came in and said he got destroyed by the new SAT. #sat #hate.
  9. There’s a special place in hell for the person responsible for creating the calculator inactive portion of the #SAT.
  10. Math teachers set us up for failure #sat.
  11. it was terrible & not an accurate measure of anyone’s intelligence. I’m tired of paying $50 to prove I’m smart.
  12. Time management was difficult for me, i knew the answers but for some, i never got the chance to fill them in.

No one likes taking a test. An no one likes sitting for 3-4 hours for a test, either. But that’s what these animals are. The truth is that these tests do a good job of separating users by test-taking ability: those who take tests well and those who don’t. It does a medium-level job trying to determine ability to succeed in college. And it does an outstanding job in stressing out our 16-17 year olds.

So we now have a new SAT test. Shouldn’t we then review how we use and administer it?

The student who said s/he is tired of paying $50 to prove that s/he is smart has a valid point. In reality, if we truly hold to the ideals of the Common Core (by the way, stay away from any politician who supported the core and not opposes the core; they are opportunists at best), the end of high school course work and course-level examinations (if standardized) should be sufficient to supplant college-entrance examinations. This is an important piece of the common core: that it is “common” and standardized, to a large degree, so all students are learning the same core information. Thus, they can be tested on it, too.

So is our focus rightly directed at specially-constructed tests like the SAT and ACT, or should we be focused on standardized tests that focus explicitly on the high school curriculum? I have no problem with the SAT or ACT. They are one of the world’s (literally) best-made tests, designed by psychometricians in New York, Princeton, and Iowa. These are bad-ass psychos; among the world’s best. I would rather, however, not have either test but have a battery of common-core course-based tests that accurately reflect course content and learning. If I am an admissions officer at an institution, I would rather receive a transcript from a non-profit national group that acted as the collector of test data (e.g., The National Student Clearinghouse would fill this role particularly well, for one) and produce a report that provides the test scores on as many as 30 tests (as in the SAT II tests) with a combined average test score that could be used to help administrators decipher the scores. Perhaps the college simply says give us the five scores of your choice, but must include x, y, and z. This is somewhat how it works now, except that the request includes either an SAT or ACT plus SAT II scores. This would be much more simple and straightforward is we had end-of-course tests for the common core. The state could provide a secure website for this information or the non-profit organization.

To the argument that take away a state’s right to produce its own curriculum and tests, that is true to an extent. But if a state subscribes to the common core (and, sorry, but there is no decent or prudent reason not to be involved with the common core), then why not take the burden of test taking off the state budget and use a nationally-normed test that is likely better than what you are using. Virginians are proud of their SOL tests (Standards of Learning; more commonly known as S**t Out of Luck tests), but the cost of developing the tests is astronomical and the ability for states to keep their test up is problematic for budget reasons, let alone technological reasons. In 2014, the state did not provide the necessary to update the SOL to adaptive testing, as requested, because they didn’t have the funds. This is what happens: it comes down to dollars and there is no sense in having 50 states create 50 state tests.

The second argument is more about fairness. If one believes that we should have an entrance examination to colleges in the United States, then I argue that anyone applying to a public institution should not have to pay a test fee. Period.

I am not a proponent of free college except to low-income students. However, I am also not a proponent of a “user fee” just to take the text that is required of a majority of the 2,400 four-year institutions in the country. Perhaps the institutions that receive the SAT/ACT scores from students should pay the fee, even if the students do not enroll. Some might say that would be a bureaucratic nightmare. But we have the technology. If student A has the College Board send her scores to two public universities and one private university, they each institution would pay, lets’ say, a $30 fee. Universities would not like this, but perhaps this should be the cost of playing the entrance examination game. How is it fair to burden the student on the test fees, when the test isn’t their choice? It is the institution that makes the decision to use the test so let them pay the fee. But wouldn’t that just increase tuition, fees, or public subsidies? Perhaps, but then that becomes a user fee for those that go to college (not all SAT/ACT test takers go to college, or go to an institution that requires an entrance exam). If the cost of adding the test fees for an institution becomes unmanageable, the perhaps the institution will think differently about either requiring the test or work with the K12 sector and prow toward a common core text battery.

In the end, at least one could hope that the institutions would pay for dinner.

Disclaimer: The author worked for the College Board from 1996 to 2000.


About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at
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One Response to Now that the SAT has been revised… let’s revise how we use the SAT

  1. Hi Scott,
    I always enjoy reading your research. One correction: the SAT stopped using analogies about 10 or more years ago. The recent change eliminated the Sentence Completion section and supposedly stopped the use of vocabulary words no one uses. My first use of sample tests has shown me that the reading section is somewhat easier, at least my perception. Strong use of evidence-based reasoning required though. No more guessing penalty or reward now as well. The reading section also included sections on science, so again, more like the ACT. I’m wondering if the real tests differ dramatically from the sample tests they’ve put out. Comments above are pretty negative. I might use them in my prep class though to give our UB students some “perspective.”

    Keep up the great work!

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