New SAT Revision: 5 Questions with Kathleen Porter-Magee

By Emmeline Zhao

The College Board made waves Wednesday when it announced the most substantial SAT revisions since 2005. The overhaul marks the organization’s response to criticisms of the test and increasing calls for accurate measures of college- and career-readiness. It comes at a time when a set of national K-12 standards with a similar goal is facing backlash in some states and communities.

Among the revisions is the elimination of the third writing portion, which was added 9 years ago to the math and reading sections, and increased the full SAT score to 2400. The new version of the college entrance exam will instead include an optional essay section and bring back the 1600-point scale. The new SAT will also pull back on the exam’s infamous testing of tough vocabulary in favor of “words that are widely used in college and career.” Fewer math sections of the exam will permit calculator use, and students will no longer be penalized a quarter point for incorrect answers in an effort to eliminate the use of guess-based testing strategies sold by private test-prep companies.

College Board leaders say the latest move is an effort to more precisely predict college- and career-readiness, also the tagline for the Common Core -- a set of K-12 standards aimed at creating a common set of expectations for students across the country, but is adopted and implemented by individual states. So far, 45 states and Washington, D.C. have adopted the new standards.

RealClearEducation’s Emmeline Zhao spoke with Kathleen Porter-Magee, The College Board’s senior advisor for policy and instruction, to discuss the implications of the new SAT.

What was the impetus behind the revision?

There were two categories of changes. One was to make the test more transparent, to be super clear about what was going to be tested, and that was a very deliberate attempt to level the playing field. No longer can test prep companies sell secrets to the SAT. We’re going to say, “This is what’s going to be on the test,” share sample questions, and be very clear about the knowledge and skills on what’s going to be tested. I think that’s a step forward in demystifying the test.

The second thing, content changes, are about better aligning the test with what the evidence shows for students to be college- and career-ready.

How much did the Common Core matter to the revision?

This wasn’t a revision aimed at aligning the Common Core. The focus was really on making sure that the SAT, as an admissions exam, should be aligned to what is most predictive of college readiness and student success in college.

I did a deep dive into Texas standards, for example. Texas opted out of the Common Core but has strong standards in English language arts. If you look at the content expectations for English language arts in Texas, they are very well aligned to the principles of the redesign, so they specifically focus on academic vocabulary and nuance meaning and context, using context in reading and writing explicitly, which aligns with the shift in the essay. Those expectations are very well aligned with the new SAT, so I hope they will feel just as comfortable and prepared as everyone else. The same goes for Virginia, where expectations specifically ask for evidence in reading and writing. There’s a specific focus on reading important works in American literature, and the SAT shift of asking students to read passages from founding documents is very well aligned with those expectations.

I think the broader questions are, “What do students need to be college- and career-ready?” “How well aligned is the new SAT to those standards?” and “Are those state standards, whether in Common Core states or non-Common Core states, aligned to the knowledge and skills students need to be successful and college- and career-ready?”

Given the controversy over the Common Core, does The College Board worry they’re taking a political risk with the similarities?

For those people really focused on the content shift specifically -- the focus on a command of evidence on relevant words and context, analyzing source text, reading with care, problem-solving -- and the evidence that college professors say what students need to be ready, and take it away from the political conversation, people have been largely very supportive of these shifts in both the higher ed and K-12 community.

It’s a reinforcement of the practices of the content that we already see in rigorous curriculum standards beyond the Common Core. I think the Common Core is a separate conversation and hopefully it won’t get swept up into the same back-and-forth. It’s bigger than that.

A lot of states are instituting moratoriums on aspects of the Common Core. What happens to the SAT in a few years if the Common Core doesn’t take off? Will the SAT have to change again, too?

I don’t think so. I think state leaders remain committed regardless of what the politics do. State leaders have a universally asserted commitment to setting college- and career-ready standards. These are aligned to those expectations. There’s a way they can be mutually supportive. Common Core is one clear and well articulated path to career readiness, but it’s not the only one. One of the things that’s interesting about the SAT getting wrapped up in the Common Core conversation is that the Common Core articulates expectations across grades K-12, that’s 13 levels across two subjects. The SAT is a college admissions assessment, and is a capstone of college- and career-readiness. Those things are different -- you can still take two paths and arrive at the same destination.

What do you say to those criticizing the changes for its inability to de-link socioeconomics and SAT scores? Can this really make that much of a difference?

The redesign rewards the best and most rigorous daily practice. What it doesn’t do is reward elite test prep. And in that respect, it can help level the playing field in two ways. One, the partnership with Khan Academy to provide free test prep, so it’s available to everyone. But also to shift from gamesmanship to actual mastery and daily work. The transparency, the additional free help and the rewarding of work that is worth doing every day can help level the playing field.

Emmeline Zhao
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