By now many of you who are focused on high school education have heard that there will be changes in the SAT beginning with the May 2016 test. This will affect ninth graders and below, so those of us with middle schoolers and high school freshmen need to pay special attention. So here’s what the new SAT will look like:

Essay is Optional. The essay, now required, will become optional for all students. Students who choose to take it will get 50 minutes (versus the 25 all students get now) to analyze evidence and “explain how an author builds an argument to persuade an audience” (as explained by the College Board). Currently students are asked in their essays to make an argument which draws on their background and experience rather than any evidence presented.

More Practical Vocabulary. The vocabulary will be focused on words more widely used in college and careers, rather than the fairly obscure words currently used.

Back to 1600 Point Scoring. There will be a separate score for the essay. A bonus for parents who waited to have children–you’ll never have to adjust to that infernal 2400 scale scoring!

A “No Calculator Section” Added to Math. There will be a math section in which calculators will not be allowed. The College Board believes that this will allow a better assessment of students’ math understanding, fluency and technique. So get out those flashcards and make sure your young’un knows his arithmetic, as it will come in handy.

Expanded Academic Disciplines. The new SAT will expand the academic disciplines of source materials to include history and science. The current SAT doesn’t require knowledge of either of these subjects.

No Penalty for Guessing. In the current SAT students lose 1/4 point for the wrong answer and lose no points for not answering the question. The New SAT won’t deduct for the wrong answer. This new plan has the added benefit of reducing the chance that students lose their places on the answer sheet (which can happen when you start skipping questions).

Includes Passages from “Founding Documents or Great Global Conversations”. Each exam will include a passage from a “Founding Document” like the Declaration of Independence, or from the “Great Global Conversation” they inspire, like the Gettysburg Address or the “I Have a Dream” speech.

Paper and Digital Versions of the SAT will be Offered.

In addition to the changes in the test, The College Board has announced several initiatives designed to level the playing field of the college application process. Their “Access to Opportunity” (A2O) initiative includes an “All-In” Campaign, which aims to ensure that students of color take AP courses in high school (The College Board also administers the AP exams), “Apply to 4 or More”, which gives deserving students four college application fee waivers; and “Realize Your College Potential”, which provides customized college information packets and fee waivers to high achieving low-income seniors (in the top 10- 15% of their class based on PSAT/SAT scores and in the bottom 33% of the national income distribution based on census information). As we have noted in a previous GCP post, outreach to the high achieving low-income students has been demonstrated to greatly increase the chances that these talented students will be able to go to great schools. See “Expanding College Opportunities”, October 16, 2013.

In an effort to make high quality test preparation available to students who cannot afford the expensive private test prep services, The College Board has partnered with Khan Academy, the free online tutoring service, to provide free test prep programs and resources. Currently Khan Academy has hundreds of questions from unreleased SATs and 200+ videos with step-by-step solutions online. The College Board has pledged to work closely with Khan Academy in order to enable them to provide test preparation for the redesigned SAT. For more information about the test changes and these initiatives, see the articles in the Washington Post here and the New York Times here.

Why redesign now? The SAT has been losing ground to the ACT in recent years, as students have demonstrated a preference for the more subject matter based and less esoteric ACT. With these changes the SAT hopes to regain lost ground. (Notwithstanding all this talk about creating tests that more closely track the high school experience, this is, after all, a business trying to make money.) With that said, the initiatives to include lower income students are to be loudly applauded, and we should all make sure word gets out about what is being done now (through Khan Academy) and in the future to ensure more students can be college bound.

Are these changes good or bad? The changes seem to create a test that should be easier to study for, and one which should allow students to demonstrate more of what they have learned in school on the test. (My college aged children thought the elimination of the required essay was way overdue.) Time will tell as to whether students find the test easier or harder. Parents of high school freshmen and younger students will need to be aware of the changes in the test preparation for this new test. GCP will stay focused on this.