SAT to undergo major overhaul

by Charles Gardner | 7/2/02 5:00am

College Board trustees voted last Thursday to make significant changes to the SAT with the goal of allowing the test to better measure in-class learning, though officials at Dartmouth and elsewhere said the alterations would likely hurt as much as help.

The revisions call for the addition of a full-blown essay question, a more challenging math section and the elimination of verbal analogy questions on the college entrance exam taken by more than a million high school students each year.

The revamped test will debut in March 2005 and will raise the top possible score to 2400 from the current 1600, to account for a new handwritten essay section and multiple-choice grammar questions based on the SAT II writing test.

Though University of California President Richard Atkinson recently proposed dropping the SAT as a consideration in college admissions, arguing that it failed to adequately measure learned knowledge, he wrote in a Jun. 27 press release that he was "delighted" with the new changes, calling them "a major event in the history of standardized testing."

At Dartmouth, however, Dean of Admissions Karl Furstenberg said he was "not convinced" that the new test would measure in-class learning any better than the earlier one, adding that the changes had been made as much for political reasons as out of genuine concern for the fairness of the SAT.

"I think this comes largely as a result of pressure from California," he said.

"While the addition of the writing test is a good thing, they are also giving up the analogies," which Furstenberg said are "terribly important" in measuring mastery of vocabulary as well as verbal reasoning and relationships.

Nor did Furstenberg think that the changes would make the test less susceptible to the effects of coaching and test preparation, practices which some allege give wealthy students an edge over their less affluent peers.

"I think the coaching services, no matter what test the College Board constructs, will find a way to coach," he said.

Several questions also remain unresolved, including whether the new writing section will appear on all administered SAT tests, and whether or not the handwritten essays will be submitted to colleges and universities along with the numerical scores.

Such questions will have little effect on Dartmouth admissions, however, with Furstenberg saying that the test is not ordinarily a "major element" in reviewing a student's application.

Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, has maintained that the new test is a fair measure of student's learning, with inequalities only arising from the varying quality of the American educational system.

While the changes may not necessarily represent a better means of gauging in-class learning, some students say the addition of a written section will provide a welcome alternative to the unremitting sets of multiple-choice questions that are currently used.

"I think it definitely makes it easier," said Jonas Pelli, who recently completed his 10th grade year at Hanover High School. Pelli, who will take the current version of the test next year, said the changes would provide a "more conceptual" component to the test.

Adam Maurer, also heading into his junior year at Hanover High, said he was "much better" at written tests than ones containing multiple choice, and welcomed the new changes as a "good idea."

Several additional changes will accompany the adjustments to the test format. To cover the added expenditure of grading the new essays, the cost of the test will be raised by around $10, while the test will now take more than three and half hours to complete.

Other changes include a new feedback system giving test-takers suggestions on particular areas in need of improvement.

This year is not the first that the SAT -- often the subject of criticism for favoring wealthier students or those with access to tutors and preparation classes -- has come under scrutiny for failing to adequately measure in-class learning.

The test, which has a recent history of gradually moving away from its roots as a test of intellectual aptitude toward one that seeks to assess acquired skills, was most recently revised in 1994.