The Revamped SAT: A Much-Needed Overhaul or Cosmetic Surgery?

The SAT is being overhauled. What does it mean?


If you’re a student, a parent or even a grandparent, most likely you’ve encountered the SAT. For much of its century-long existence, this multiple-choice test that aims to assess readiness for higher education has been one of the keys to college.

While a student’s high school grade-point average is still the most important part of the college application, colleges also use SAT results in evaluating applicants.

Once called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, then the Scholastic Assessment Test, it’s now simply the SATTM. For decades a two-part (Reading and Mathematics) test, the SAT incorporated a mandatory Writing section in 2005.

Recently, the College Board, the nonprofit corporation that oversees the SAT, announced that the biggest revamp in its history will be implemented in the spring of 2016. The SAT will reflect more of what is actually being learned in America’s schools, and the College Board will make test preparation accessible to students of all income levels.

Behind the Changes

“It is time to admit that the SAT and the ACT [American College Testing] have become far too disconnected from the work of our high schools,” College Board President David Coleman has said of the planned changes.

While this statement is probably true, Coleman’s inclusion of the ACT college readiness assessment test, the SAT’s biggest competitor, was no accident. Detractors claim that the much-heralded SAT revamp is simply a profit-oriented response to the rapidly rising popularity of ACT.

But Coleman stresses that the restructured SAT with its increased accessibility is a game-changer in American higher education, and returns to the original mission and purpose of the SAT: to circumvent the “boarding school to Ivy League” system of college admissions that was prevalent in the early 20th century—and which some insist still exists today.

In 2012, for the first time ever, more students chose to take the ACT than the SAT.

In about 1900, professors from a dozen leading U.S. universities formed the College Entrance Examination Board (later the College Board) and developed a standardized entrance examination to level the playing field for college applicants.

The early version of the SAT required simple essay-writing, but by 1926 the College Board had adapted psychologist Carl Brigham’s aptitude test for the military into a multiple-choice test for college applicants.

For years, controversy has surrounded the SAT, with opponents alleging that it is not a good predictor of college success and cannot measure important traits like creativity. The fact that a student can “prep” for the exam has also been a source of contention: rather than measuring material learned, detractors say, the SAT merely measures test-taking skills.

By 1959, SAT found itself facing a rival: ACT, a different sort of college entrance examination developed by the nonprofit American College Testing. ACT has five sections: English, mathematics, science, reading and an optional writing portion. In 2012, for the first time ever, more students chose to take the ACT than the SAT.

What Exactly Will Change?

The big picture on the changes is that the SAT will reflect more of what is actually being learned in America’s schools, and the College Board will make test prep accessible to students of all income levels. Now to the details:

NOTE: The 2016 changes do not affect the SAT 2 subject tests. These subject tests are a good way to demonstrate knowledge in specific subjects, such as biology or psychology, and are best taken at the same time the student is finishing up honors, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate coursework in the same subject, while knowledge is still fresh. For more information on the SAT 2 subject tests, go to

  • The entire process will be more transparent. The College Board is moving away from using obscure texts, tricky questions and unfamiliar vocabulary. This may well be tied into a desire to exercise more control over SAT prep, but it’s a positive step regardless of motive.
  • The writing portion will become optional, and scoring will return to its pre-2005 potential total of 1,600 rather than 2,400. Each of the two required sections, Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, and Math, will offer the traditional score range of 200-800. The optional essay score will be added separately. The optional essay will require more text-based analysis than in the past.
         Some experts feel that improving the essay and making it optional at the same time sends a mixed message. And, in fact, the College Board has revealed that its member admissions officers are divided on whether the essay is a useful portion of the test.
  • Vocabulary words will be more familiar, less arcane. The College Board stresses that the test will emphasize a student’s interpretation of the meaning of the word in context. As they put it, “No longer will students use flashcards to memorize obscure words, only to forget them the minute they put their test pencils down.” Some experts feel this will result in “dumbing down” the test.
  • America’s important founding documents and meaningful texts will be used as a part of every SAT exam. While the College Board’s efforts to engage students in analysis of documents such as the Declaration of Independence are laudable, this may put foreign students at a disadvantage. However, the revised SAT reading portion will also include texts from “global conversations,” using sources from Gandhi to Mandela. For Foreign Service applicants, that may be a plus. Also included will be texts from literature, the arts and science.
  • The Mathematics section will be more focused, drawing from fewer math sub-genres. The College Board has renamed the three subsections “Problem-Solving and Data Analysis,” “The Heart of Algebra” and “Passport to Advanced Math.” The focus will be on real-life math skills such as calculating percentages and ratios, along with a few representative geometry and trigonometry questions.
  • Wrong answers will no longer be penalized. The ACT does not penalize for wrong answers, and now the SAT will follow suit. This means that students taking the SAT starting in 2016 should fill in all blanks, even if they don’t know the answer to a particular question.
  • Free SAT test preparation will be available immediately through a joint venture with the Khan Academy. Free materials for SAT preparation have always been available, including on the Khan Academy website, but the private educational prep companies and tutors are still the choice for those who can afford them. And that points to a big issue that the College Board seeks to address: income disparity.
         Khan Academy founder Salman Khan joined with Coleman in an April press conference that made much of this initiative as a way for low-income students to access formerly out-of-reach test “prep.” But most experts believe that as long as expensive, and therefore, exclusive alternatives exist, wealthy families will continue to use them.
         Still, Khan asserts that these courses will adhere to the highest standards, with the goal of being “the best thing out there—that happens to be free.”

Time Will Tell


Is the College Board earnest in its commitment to helping students of all income levels do better both on the SAT and in their college years? The answer is a qualified yes.

“I believe that David Coleman is sincere in his attempt to construct a better SAT,” says Professor Les Perelman, a former director of writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Writing and Comparative Media Studies. His published paper, “Mass Market Writing Assessments As Bullshit,” detailed his own students’ experiments with using “made-up facts” in their SAT essays and receiving top scores.

Perelman believes an assessment test similar to the British A-levels, which generally employ writing skills in a Q-and-A format, would be a much better predictor of college success than either the SAT or the ACT, however.

And that is perhaps the biggest question of all: Are these tests even necessary for college admission? After all, more than 800 colleges do not require the SAT or ACT from their applicants, and the list is growing.

As Perelman points out, “The person who created the SAT, Carl Campbell Brigham, the secretary of the College Board in the early 20th century and a professor of psychology at Princeton, repudiated it in the 1930s.”

Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, believes the announced changes are merely cosmetic. “Rather than improve the measurement quality of the SAT, most of the upcoming adjustments seem designed to win back market share from the ACT and slow adoption of test-optional policies,” he says.

Still, several college administrators, including Harvard’s Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons, welcome the changes. Fitzsimmons believes they send a message that “good hard work is going to pay off.” Many others are taking a wait-and-see approach.

College of Wooster Senior Associate Director of Admissions Cathy Finks appreciates “the willingness of the College Board to keep the SAT relevant to today’s students and help it be a better predictor for higher education preparedness.” But, she adds, “As the changes have just been announced, we look forward to learning more over the coming years.”

Meanwhile, Finks echoes the sentiments of most college administrators when she says, “We have found the work a student puts into their four years of high school—thus, the transcript —is the best predictor for success and retention in the Wooster classroom.”

The SAT is here for the indefinite future, but the proposed changes do signify a realization that better assessment tools are needed. Time will tell if these changes will make a difference in the application process. In the meantime, as always, the best preparation for college is getting good grades in high school.

Francesca Huemer Kelly is a Foreign Service spouse and freelance writer living in Highland Park, Illinois.