The New SAT: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The new SAT, released in March of 2016, arrived shrouded in rhetoric about “fairness” and “access.”   And indeed, the partnership with Kahn Academy promised access to free test prep, while the elimination of “esoteric” vocabulary and the dreaded “guessing penalty” was heartening to many high school students.  So, now that thousands have taken the test, what can we say about it?

The Good

From a narrow, self-interested perspective the new SAT has been a blessing.  The new SAT essentially “vaporized” the existing curriculum of competing companies, leveling the playing field and giving HCC an advantage as a start-up.

And because the new SAT bears an uncanny resemblance to the ACT, it inspired a new approach at HCC, our H3 classes.  By exploiting the similarities between the new SAT, new PSAT, and the traditional ACT, we’ve answered one of the most vexing questions in test prep: “Which test should I take?”  HCC students are prepared to take any or all of these tests, resulting in an unprecedented 40 perfect SAT or ACT scores in the last 14 months.

There are other “good” things about the new SAT. The elimination of vocabulary—and the irrelevance of vocabulary flashcards—means that the advantages of the traditional test prep model have largely receded.  Because HCC teaches real skills, rather than rote memorization, and weaves college consulting into every aspect of our program, our students have not only done better than anyone else in the nation on the latest tests, but have also been admitted in large numbers to the most selective colleges and programs.

The Bad

However, as an educator, and a citizen, I’m much less enthusiastic about the new SAT.  The new Math sections have been justly criticized as excessively “wordy,” and the new Reading sections have awkwardly crammed graphs and charts into reading passages to fulfill the dictates of the Common Core.  In general, the reading passages are less interesting to read and to teach.  And the SAT’s new Writing section bears such a strong resemblance to the ACT that the phrase “industrial espionage” comes to mind.  I actually enjoyed teaching the “old” SAT.  The newer one, not so much.

The Ugly

More troublingly, in many ways the new SAT is less fair and less meaningful than the old SAT.   In essentially eliminating vocabulary and removing other “unpopular” elements, College Board created a test very similar to the ACT. But the SAT also copied one of the ACT’s inherent flaws—its reliance on speed. The new SAT, just like the ACT, is a test that favors faster processing speed, a cognitive element that is essentially “wired-in.”  Why are we testing how quickly kids can read?  Are we training them for college and life, or to browse social media posts?

Another problem with the new SAT (and ACT) is that students from English-as-a-second-language household are disadvantaged by the new emphasis on idiomatic expressions, elements that favor students who grew up in households with native speakers.

The new SAT now includes at least one 18th or 19th-century passage.  As someone whose research in graduate school was in 18th and 19th-century literature, this is another element that is “good” for HCC—we feel very comfortable teaching this material.  But I’m not so sure that replacing contemporary vocabulary with 18th-century prose is a fair trade.  I’ve long observed that what are considered “SAT words” by students in high school are simply “words” by the time they are adults.  How can the current generation of students participate in democracy when words like “quisling” or “disingenuous” or “impugn” are not in their vocabulary?

The new SAT will doubtless reenergize debates about the nature and necessity of the SAT.  Is it “fair?”  Is it useful?  Like taxes, it’s easy to bemoan these tests.  But of course, eliminating the SAT or ACT would mean colleges would make difficult admissions decisions using only grades as the cognitive factors. Grades are too subjective—and too inclined to cluster at the top—to serve as the sole cognitive criteria.

One thing about the new SAT is almost certain: because of its greater emphasis on reading, students should be reading lots of novels and non-fiction works throughout middle school and high school—perhaps this sort of reading will be the way students learn the vocabulary they’ll need to participate in democracy and leadership.