The College Board, makers of the SAT, recently announced significant changes effective in the spring: The optional essay will disappear, and Subject Tests will no longer be offered. These changes are the latest in a series of alterations in the test that have occurred fairly regularly in the last fifteen years. The question is-Why? How will these latest changes affect test takers?
The first of the more recent changes in a test developed over 90 years ago took place in 2005. Instead of the 1600 point system that had been in place for decades, the test went to 2400 points. It no longer included analogies, and added a 50 minute essay, which had an analytical emphasis. The additional sections added significant time to the test. With no breaks, it was 3 ¾ hours.
At that time, a spokesperson stated that the College Board added the writing section to make writing, “more of a priority across the United States.” In fact, in October 2019, The College Board published their national validity study of the SAT essay. “Results show that there is a positive relationship between the three SAT Essay scores and first semester English and writing course grades as well as overall first year grade point average.”
In 2016 the SAT changed again. The scoring system reverted to the same as the 2005 test: 1600 points. The guessing penalty that was a hallmark of the old test was eliminated. And instead of 5 answer choices, there were only 4. In addition, the formerly mandatory essay became optional.
At the end of January, the College Board announced that SAT Subject tests would no longer be offered for American Students.Their blog statement clarified that decision by maintaining: The expanded reach of AP and its widespread availability for low-income students and students of color means the Subject Tests are no longer necessary for students to show what they know.
In addition to eliminating those exams, College Board reported that the SAT would no longer include an essay of any kind. Their reasoning behind this latest alteration: ”We’re reducing demands on students.” Jack Buckley, a former College Board researcher who helped redesign the 2016 SAT has a different view. He asserts, “The essay may actually have been particularly helpful for predicting the college success of disadvantaged students . . .Ironic that, at a time when standardized testing is under immense pressure not only due to the pandemic but also from the anti-racist movement, CB [College Board] would discontinue a feature of their flagship college entrance examination that their own research argues helped level the playing field (for minority students).” The data seem to suggest that the essay was a positive for certain disadvantaged groups whose first language was not English. The essay score improved the ability to predict how well the applicant would do in college English and writing classes by more than 30 percent above knowing only the student’s high school grades and verbal SAT score. According to the College Board’s own report, a student who performed poorly on the multiple choice sections of the test, but had a higher than average score on the essay, could still have a 80 percent chance of passing a college English or writing class. The question is, if the essay was optional, how does eliminating it reduce stress?
The College Board affirms, “This decision recognizes that there are other ways for students to demonstrate their mastery of essay writing. At the same time, writing remains essential to college readiness.” In light of the College Board’s own 2019 study showing the efficacy of the essay, this statement appears perplexing. Has the philosophy changed radically in the last couple of years? Is this decision financial, political, or philosophical?
It would be most helpful to educators if the College Board would delineate the other ways in which students can demonstrate writing proficiency.
With so many changes occurring over the last few years, educators might feel that the organization is behaving erratically.