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Preparing Students for a New Era of Admission Testing

Jed Applerouth

by Jed Applerouth, Founder, Applerouth Tutoring Services

Epic changes are transforming the landscape of college admissions testing. The proverbial king (the SAT) has lost his crown, ambitious new players are entering the fray, time-honored testing constructs are being abandoned and the Common Core State Standards are poised to redefine our very definitions of student success. On top of this, new technologies promise to revolutionize how we conceptualize standardized tests. For Multiple choice examination form or customer satisfaction surveythe test-o-philes out there, this is a time of excitement, laden with possibility; for legions of parents and students, this time is marked by uncertainty and mild anxiety. “What does all this mean for me? What do I need to know to be prepared?”

The mercurial SAT and its steadfast younger sibling, the ACT, have dominated the testing landscape for decades. While the ACT largely remains faithful to its original 1959 form, the SAT continues to deviate even further from its 1926 origins. Since my personal introduction to the SAT in 1987, antonyms, quantitative comparisons and analogies have all departed, making room for more advanced math and the Writing section. ACT, Inc. rather than toying with its flagship test’s content, focused its efforts on better marketing and statewide partnerships—all the while touting the ACT’s superior alignment to the high school curriculum. These game-changing statewide initiatives have worked: in 2012, the ACT finally dethroned the SAT and became the most popular test in the country.

The ascension of the ACT reveals a fundamental shift in the ethos of American college admissions testing. Whereas Carl Brigham designed the SAT with aptitude and innate intelligence in mind, as an assessment thatwould be divorced from the high school curriculum, Everett Franklin Lindquist envisioned the ACT as a direct measurement of scholastic achievement. Lindquist’s model has come to dominate the industry, and with every new formulation of the SAT, aptitude-oriented question types are becoming scarcer. The message is clear: align with the high school curriculum or get out of the game.

Though we’ve become accustomed to the SAT-ACT duopoly, two upstarts may soon crowd the field of college admissions testing. PARCC and Smarter Balanced, both multi-state testing consortia funded by the Department of Education, aim to provide more accurate assessments for the students of the 21st century. If these consortia develop tests more closely aligned with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and more predictive of collegiate performance, their assessments could outright replace the SAT and ACT.

These changes have forced the SAT and ACT into a race to align with the “Common Core.” Of the two assessments, the ACT is several steps ahead of the SAT (though not nearly so well aligned as its marketing materials would have one believe). While the SAT and ACT certainly cover material that is relevant to many standards, they rarely capture more than a superficial indication of whether a student has mastered a standard. This isn’t really that surprising: the tests have never before claimed to be comprehensive tests of everything students learn in high school. The fact that they are now racing to do so with their forced mappings to the CCSS is a testament to the volatility of the times. The tests are on the ropes, and both the College Board and ACT, Inc. must now buy time by touting “alignment”; feverishly write new, modern tests; and jockey for position so that when the future of testing finally arrives, they’ll still be a part of it.

Anticipating the New SAT
By hiring a new president, David Coleman, who played a leading role in developing the Common Core State Standards for math and literacy, the College Board signaled that alignment with the CCSS would be a top institutional priority. Within months of Coleman’s appointment, the College Board shelved its planned update to the best-selling Official Guide to the SAT, and redirected its resources towards reconfiguring the organization’s flagship SAT assessment.

What specific modifications can we anticipate from the forthcoming SAT? Through numerous statements and one particularly revealing interview at the Brookings Institution, Coleman has spelled out the major changes that are in the works.

Critical Reading
Perhaps the most fundamental change we can anticipate will be the departure of esoteric vocabulary from the Critical Reading section. Following the eradication of antonyms in 1994 and the extirpation of analogies in 2005, sentence completions appear to be the final vocabulary-laden question type on the chopping block for 2015. Coleman wants to swap out rarefied vocabulary words for those that are more likely to serve students in their college courses. Out with “antediluvian,” “picayune,” and “sybarite”; in with “transform, deliberate, [&] hypothesis.” We can also anticipate the SAT will continue to test basic vocabulary through its passage-based “vocabulary-in-context” questions, as this practice adheres directly to the CCSS.

We may also see an expansion of the types of passages tested on the Critical Reading section. The current SAT almost never incorporates passages that test students on their science literacy. Not only is this a “Common Core” standard (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.11-12), but it’s something the ACT already tests in both its Science and Reading sections. Don’t be surprised if science passages with tables make their way into the Critical Reading section of the SAT.

Interestingly, the test-writers seem to be experimenting with longer-format Critical Reading sections. One of my New Jersey-based colleagues informed me that the College Board has been administering 40-minute Critical Reading sections to students at high schools near the Princeton, NJ headquarters, rather than the standard 25-minute sections currently found on the SAT. Some of these experimental tests even included poetry-based reading passages, which traditionally have lived only on the Literature SAT Subject test. We’ll see if the longer sections or new content survive the beta-testing phase, but this is certainly something to keep on the radar.

To better mirror the high school curriculum, SAT math will most certainly get harder, covering more advanced concepts. The current test puts excessive focus on 8th and 9th grade math—algebra, arithmetic, geometry—and includes psychometric, IQ-type questions that don’t directly map to the high school curriculum. In the new test, every question will need to map to a Common Core standard; more math topics will be covered, but the questions will likely be less “tricky” and more familiar.

I anticipate multiple choice grammar and rhetorical skill questions will undergo few substantive changes, as these question types currently align well with the CCSS. Perhaps the SAT will add more punctuation or test more grammar rules in context, rather than in one-off sentence improvements. However, these changes would take the SAT ever closer to the ACT, and further blur the distinction between the two tests.

The essay will likely move from an exercise in creative writing wherein students can make up facts at their pleasure, towards a model that mandates fidelity to established facts, approximating the Document-Based Question model of AP History exams. Students will need to write compelling essays that draw from available evidence: a skill far more valuable for college students.

Potential SAT Release Date
I anticipate a new SAT no later than the spring of 2015, and potentially sooner. In 1994 and 2005, when the College Board unveiled “new” SATs in March, it released “new” PSATs the prior October to facilitate the transition. We’ll know soon enough if the College Board will repeat this pattern for 2014-2015.

Anticipating the New ACT
The College Board’s announcement of a new SAT was matched, and potentially trumped, by ACT, Inc.’s announcement that a digital ACT will be available by 2015. The ACT, Inc.’s announcement heralds a sea change in Standardized textthe world of admission testing: going digital allows a shift from static, multiple choice questions towards a more adaptive and interactive testing experience. One example of the new question types enabled by digital testing can be found on PARCC’s website. This digital question form obviates many traditional test-taking strategies such as working backwards or “plugging in.” Additionally students will need to adapt to reading on a screen, losing the ability to read actively by marking up the test booklet as they go. Having coached the digital GMAT and GRE for years, I know this will take students some getting used to.

I anticipate that the earliest iterations of the digital ACT will deviate little from the paper-based version of the test, but later versions will incorporate innovative digital question types such as those revealed on the 2011 GRE and 2012 GMAT exams. In particular, we may see ACT questions similar to those in the integrated reasoning section of the GMAT, which allows students to transform and manipulate charts, tables, and graphs to generate inferences from multiple data sources. This screams “ACT Science section”! The end-game of going digital is a level of interactivity that will fundamentally transform the experience of test-taking. Jon Erikson, president of ACT, Inc.’s educational division, painted a picture of this final stage in which the Science section of the ACT will test students by having them conduct their own digital science experiments in a virtual lab that is literally at the students’ fingertips. That’s a new era of testing.

In Closing
Thanks to healthy competition in the testing marketplace, change is coming, and the announced changes seem largely beneficial for our kids. The new SAT and ACT should correlate more highly with high school performance and serve as more accurate predictors of college performance. When the dust settles, will there be one test to rule them all? Will high school evaluative tests and college admissions tests merge into one, reducing rather than expanding the testing demands on our kids? For now, we can only wait and see.



9 Responses to Preparing Students for a New Era of Admission Testing

  1. Thanks for the article. I found it very helpful.

  2. Wow! What a fabulous, comprehensive look at the future of testing! Thanks so much for sharing your expertise!

  3. Alan Haas says:

    Brilliant assessment, analysis and anticipation, as always. Many thanks, Jed

  4. My pleasure to share this information. Just a quick update. I’m here in Toronto at NACAC. David Coleman, president of the College Board, presented a session entitled Revising the SAT and Creating Student Opportunity. We audience members were hoping for some insights or specifics, but Coleman kept his cards extremely close to his chest. The “big reveal” regarding the new test will either come at the College Board Forum in NY Oct 23-25, or sometime in January, a month that Coleman alluded to multiple times during his address. In a few months, we will all have a much clearer sense of this new and improved 2015 SAT.

  5. Jed,
    Your clear and comprehensive analysis parallels your extraordinary test prep services!

  6. Erin Oehler says:

    Thank you for such an in-depth and well-explained analysis! It raises the question of how the SAT and ACT’s movements to align with the CCSS will affect students who live in states that did not adopt the CCSS, such as Texas. Any thoughts?

  7. Jed Applerouth says:

    Thank you again for all the great feedback!

    Erin, per your question, enough states will back the CCSS to make it imperative for ACT, Inc. and College Board to align their assessments with these new standards. A few states will resist – Texas, Virginia, Alaska, and Nebraska have to date- but I don’t believe students from these states will be at a disadvantage when they sit for their boards. Many non-participating states will effectively be teaching to these same or very similar standards; they simply will refrain from being politically bound to any kind of “federal” project.

    Unless the tests are completely redesigned as comprehensive end of year tests, which is currently beyond the scope of the proposed changes, students in non-participating states should be fine.

    Once the scope of the new content is defined, new practice tests are released, and all students have access to well-calibrated practice materials, the playing field should be even.

  8. Excellent article.Thanks for sharing your knowledge in this area!

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