As college admissions counselors, we stress to our students that their applications are pieces of a whole. Strong grades in rigorous classes, demonstrated devotion to their extracurricular activities, recommendations from teachers who know them well – all are factors that help them feel empowered because ultimately, they have some sort of control. And then there are the standardized test scores. Nothing seems to provoke anxiety as quickly or acutely as the SAT.
We would be lying if we said these scores don’t matter, because they do. They are really the only component of an application that “levels the playing field.” However, the playing field is about to get some new rules.
The College Board recently announced that the structure of the SAT would undergo “sweeping changes” in the spring of 2016 (CNN, March 5, 2014). For decades, the SAT has been the iconic standardized test; however it is now being outpaced by the ACT, it’s only competitor. Here again is more proof of the changing college admissions landscape. According to Dr. Dean Skarlis, President of the College Advisor of New York, “We’ve been advising students to take the ACT for almost 15 years putting us ahead of this recent trend. The SAT has a fundamental bias; it focuses more on strategy than on curriculum – that is a problem. Ultimately the best predictor for a student’s collegiate success is their high school transcript. Because the SAT is not curriculum based, students struggle with the structure and their scores often do not reflect their true academic ability. The ACT, on the other hand, is directly tied to high school curricula across the United States.”
We’ve steered hundreds of students struggling with the SAT towards the ACT with excellent results. The announced changes to the SAT will “make it more like the ACT” (New York Times, Tamar Lewin, March 5, 2014). There are multiple factors that set the ACT apart from the SAT. These include students not being penalized for guessing and an optional essay. The 2016 SAT will adopt both of these. Other changes to the SAT will include: a revamp of the vocabulary section, scoring will revert back to the 1600 point scale (it has been 2400 since 2005 when the writing section was added) and the essay will now have a separate score. The math section will be updated and only allow calculators for certain problems, each exam will have a writing section based on “source documents and a reading passage based on one of the nation’s founding documents . . .” (New York Times, Tamar Lewin, March 5, 2014). Big changes in an attempt to keep pace with changing times and competition.
And there are more reasons for the College Board to take notice. For the first time last year, the ACT was taken by more high school students than the SAT. Also, the rise in “test optional schools” is nothing to sneeze at. A recent study by William Hiss, former Dean of Admissions of the prestigious Bates College, finds that there was “virtually no difference in grades and graduation rates between test submitters and nonsubmitters.” (NPR, Eric Westervelt) And every year more schools become “test optional” for the very reason we cited above; a child is more than their test scores.
So where does this leave you as a student? At the College Advisor of New York we administer what we call a “Diagnostic” during either sophomore or junior year, depending on the student. This allows us to get an overall picture and focus on where a student might have a weak spot. We then partner them with our test prep company, Prowess Test Prep, to give a student the best chance of preparing for whichever exam we believe will better display their academic “prowess.”
Whether it be the SAT, the ACT, or both, standardized tests aren’t going away. Stay tuned for more as information will continue to be released about the new SAT.