SAT revises college entrance exam, offers free test prep via Khan Academy

For the first time in nearly ten years, the SAT college entrance exam will undergo a series of changes, designed to make it more relevant to college work (or to bolster its standing compared with the ACT, depending on how cynical your perspective is). This sweeping transformation will address “what’s tested, how it’s scored and how students prepare,” according to CNN.

Mostly new and improved

Released for the first time in Spring 2016, the new, improved SAT will be comprised of three sections: “evidenced based” reading and writing, a math component and an optional essay. Unlike previous exams, students will no longer be penalized for guessing. Not everything is “new,” however, as the SAT returns to its traditional scoring base of 1600 (from 2400, currently).

Perhaps the most innovative element in the new SAT package is the support that test-takers will receive free via the successful online Khan Academy. The online academy will begin offering free preparation materials in Spring 2015, thus helping to even out the playing field between most wealthy, highly prepared students (who can afford the exorbitant SAT prep class fees) and their less affluent (but perhaps no less capable) counterparts. In addition, income-eligible students will be able to receive waivers allowing them to apply to four colleges free.

Other good reasons for change

Of course, not all of the motivations spurring on the SAT developers are altruistic. First, there’s been plenty of competition from the ACT (which is typically a Midwestern-driven test, compared with the SAT, which is used more by colleges on the East and West Coasts). In recent years, the ACT has been gaining ground on the SAT.

Another factor playing into the decision to make the test more relevant, in addition to complaints from admission officers and counselors, is that many colleges have become “test-optional,” enabling the student who is applying to decide whether or not to submit a score at all.

Although most colleges still consider college entrance exams like the ACT and SAT as part of their overall decision process for admissions, many have decided they can ably select new freshmen without them. Even those who use SAT or ACT scores note that they weigh less heavily than high school grades, class rank, difficulty of high school courses, even the interest demonstrated by the student in the college to which they are applying, according to a 2013 study by the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC).

The nitty-gritty details

As for what students can expect with the new SAT, there’ll be a broader range of disciplines for the reading and writing portion, including history, literature, science and social studies. Vocabulary will be shifted from obscure and challenging words to more relevant and widely used language. In the math section, calculators are no longer a given. Instead, that typically anxiety-producing (but now called “real world”) problem solving will be featured, along with algebra, data analysis and advanced math concepts.

The optional essay will focus on the test-taker’s reaction to a reasoned, universal excerpt. Those taking the SAT will write essays in which they are required to analyze the author’s thesis, how the author applied evidence to his or her argument and how the author used style to create a winning argument. Fifty minutes will be allotted for the optional essay, while the rest of the SAT test clocks in at three hours. While the current test can be taken only on paper, the new SAT will also have an electronic option.

Will all of these changes make the test more relevant to college admissions officials, or even boost sales of the SAT? For now, the verdict is still out, but clearly, it’s a step in the right educational direction.