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New SAT Is Only Slightly Better

The redesigned SAT that will make its debut in March 2016 contains several significant changes, but the most important is the College Board's belated admission that the test is coachable ("College Board jumps into SAT coaching as test changes loom," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jun. 3). For many years, the College Board maintained the very opposite. In 1965, for example, it published The Effects of Coaching on Scholastic Aptitude Test Scores, which claimed that short-term coaching was not only unnecessary but ill advised.

It was Stanley H. Kaplan, who challenged that assertion when he showed that appropriate practice could boost average scores by more than 100 points (Test Pilot, Simon & Schuster, 2001). Even if he exaggerated the increase, it became apparent with time that students who availed themselves of coaching services performed better than if they had not. When I was a senior in high school in the 1950s, I went to the counselor's office to get information about the SAT.  All I was given was a thin pamphlet with one sample question for the verbal and one for the math section, and told that I couldn't prepare for it. 

Since then, of course, students have become more savvy.  Test-prep services have sprung up.  Although I remain skeptical that they can deliver everything they advertise, I believe all students can benefit from appropriate practice followed by immediate knowledge of results.  If nothing else, the time and energy put in make students more familiar with the format of the SAT.  That alone can help them reduce the stress they feel.

As for the other changes in the SAT, I think that the inclusion of "high-utility" words makes sense. What practical use is knowledge of arcane words?  I also like the elimination of the penalty for guessing. Too many trick questions in the past were obviously designed simply to engineer score spread rather than anything else. But making the essay optional is a mistake.  If college-bound students can't write a short essay, then they will be handicapped. When I was in high school, the New York State Regents Exam in English required a brief essay on one of several given topics. I felt even then that it was a reasonable demand.

The College Board has embarrassed itself often over the years.  The changes in the name of the test alone are one example.  But so are the rationales offered. The truth is that the primary purpose of the SAT has always been - and still is - to rank students. To do so, designers are forced to eliminate even the most important items if they are answered correctly too often by too many students because of effective instruction. I've always believed that this necessity is antithetical to the reason schools exist in the first place.

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