Revised SAT exam seeks to retain relevance as critics question its worth

The pre-college test will no longer require essays or obscure vocabulary

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 April, 2014, 10:49pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 April, 2014, 10:49pm


Getting into college in the United States will no longer hinge so much on a high school student's grasp of arcane vocabulary or obtuse mathematical formulas.

Changes to the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) unveiled Wednesday are intended to breathe new vigour into the 88-year-old college entrance exam at a time when some critics are challenging its value.

"The changes to the SAT will distinguish it from any current admission exam," said the College Board, the New York-based charity that oversees the test.

Due to take effect in March 2016, the revamped SAT will spare candidates the need to memorise words such as obsequious, propinquity, enervation. or lachrymose.

Instead, they'll be expected to interpret more common "high utility" words in the context in which they appear.

For example, they might be asked if "intense" - as in, "a more intense clustering of jobs ... in a smaller number of bigger cities" - means emotional, concentrated (the correct answer), brilliant or determined.

Math and algebra questions will focus on solving real-life scenarios, such as figuring out from a numerical table which age group had the biggest turnout in percentage terms in the 2012 US presidential election.

"They're trying to make the test serve as a better measure of critical thinking skills," said Jonathan Burdick, vice provost and dean of college admission at the University of Rochester in New York state.

The SAT remains multiple choice, but there will be four choices rather than five, and no points lost for wrong answers. An essay portion, requiring students to analyse a given argument within 50 minutes, will become optional. However, many universities prefer to see it completed.

The changes come as the SAT, taken by 1.66 million students in the United States and abroad last year, fends off its 55-year-old rival, the American College Testing (ACT) assessment, which claims 1.8 million test-takers.

Money is a factor. The SAT, which is more widely taken in the US northeast and West, costs US$51 a test, while fees for the ACT, taken mainly in the Midwest and South, start at US$36.50. Both tests cost more for those living abroad, but waivers are offered for children from lower-income households.

For those who can afford it, a US$4.5 billion "test prep" industry stands ready to tutor youngsters, either with after-school and weekend classes in strip malls or in one-on-one sessions that can cost as much as US$500 an hour.

Some educators wonder about the worth of the SAT.

"The SAT will remain a weak predictor of undergraduate success," said Bob Schaeffer of the advocacy group FairTest, in a statement upon release of the revamped test.

"The exam will still under-predict the performance of females, students whose home language is not English, and older applicants" while wealthy families that could afford tutoring would still enjoy an advantage, Schaeffer said.