The College Board recently announced that the SAT is getting yet another facelift, the most drastic set of changes since the March 2005 exam debuted with an entirely new writing section. The rise of the ACT has done good things for the college admission process. Whether the ACT is better than the SAT or if it is any more reflective of a student’s raw intelligence is beside the point. What’s important is that it has shattered the College Board’s monopoly of the college admission exam market and is spurring the company to enact changes.
Starting in 2016, the test will make the writing section optional, go back to the 1600 scale, no longer deduct points for incorrect answers, focus less on “obscure” vocabulary words and most importantly, begin to offer free test prep materials in conjunction with Khan Academy.
The overhaul is primarily intended to level the playing field across the socioeconomic gradient. Several of the changes are very important steps in the right direction. Hundred-point jumps in SAT scores are quite feasible with adequate and well-targeted test prep. Private tutors and 12-week summer prep courses aim to do just this, but their sizeable price tags mean that the wealthy can have a considerable leg up. Offering free test prep — especially test prep from a reputable company such as Khan Academy — is a very important and commendable step to reducing the disparity.
The thing is, the root of College Board’s problem remains untouched. More than anything, the SAT measures an individual’s ability to take the SAT. Cramming and crash-courses wouldn’t make a significant difference on an IQ test; but for the SAT, they could result in a difference of 100 points. While these new measures will help more students perform better on the exam, colleges are still using a very tenuous measure of college potential to sort their applicants.
Over time, these changes should hopefully accumulate to make an altogether better test. It’s laudable that the College Board is trying to level the playing field; however, if the end goal is to design a test that will accurately reflect a student’s future performance in a college setting, dropping the essay is a step in the wrong direction.
The essay — which has to be completed in 25 minutes — is arguably the most universally applicable portion of the entire exam. At the very least, more applicable than answering 12 multiple choice questions on the mating patterns of New England lobster populations during the rainy season in the critical reading section. The essay makes students hone their ability to argue. The essay prompts have never been terribly lofty — something strongly evidenced by the fact that the SAT that I took asked me to write about reality television.
Writing something cohesive that quickly will undoubtedly seem daunting to the average 16-year-old. But it’s a skill easily mastered and arguably the skill I found most useful from the SATs. So too is the ability to make up a cohesive thesis under a time crunch and find legitimate examples to back it up.
Having to formulate and support arguments quickly is a common theme in precept, for example. It’s also not a skill that requires much formal education. You don’t need to study obscure words or memorize arcane formulas to argue a point concisely, and thus for the old SAT, it’s the one section that carries little predisposition for the higher socioeconomic demographic.
As much emphasis as colleges put on building a well-rounded class by using a holistic admission process, it’s undeniable that the SATs are important in every case. The College Board is making important strides in leveling the playing field across socioeconomic disparity, but it is making a huge mistake by making the essay portion of the exam optional. Hopefully, the exam will keep evolving, and the ideal formula will come along sooner rather than later.
Shruthi Deivasigamani is a sophomore from Cresskill, N.J. She can be reached at email@example.com.