Why the SAT had to change

Mike Krumboltz
Yahoo News

This week, high school students were given a surprise gift — the dreaded essay portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test would be going optional in spring 2016, along with a host of other changes to the annual exam.

No longer would stressed students be forced to come up with thoughtful and well-reasoned responses to prompts such as, "Do memories hinder or help people in their effort to learn from the past and succeed in the present?"

The New York Times examined the motivations behind the changes, and it essentially boils down to one thing: money.

The genuine hope and goal of David Coleman, president of the College Board (the organization that administers the SAT), is that the SAT can once again be used as a test that actually helps to level the playing field instead of making a college education less accessible to certain groups.

Studies showed that students whose family could afford often-expensive test preparation were more likely to do well. That was something Coleman sought to change. Apparently no fan of the test prep industry, Coleman referred to some test prep providers as "predators," in the Times piece.

Created in 1926 and based on an intelligence test given to World War I soldiers, the test, despite the initial belief that it could not be prepared for, quickly inspired a host of side industries that aimed to do exactly that. That's now a "$4.5-billion-a-year industry that caters largely to the worried wealthy in America who feel that the test can be gamed and that their children need to pay to learn the strategies," the Times writes.

Companies such as Kaplan and Princeton Review charge up to $1,000 for courses, and private tutors rake up to $15,000 throughout the year, according to NBCNews.com.

To counter that, the College Board is partnering with the nonprofit Khan Academy, the makers of popular online tutorial videos that assist students in everything from chemistry to algebra to art history. And it's free.

From the Times:

There was no discussion of financial terms, just an agreement in principle that they would join forces. (The College Board won’t pay Khan Academy.) They talked about a hypothetical test-prep experience in which students would log on to a personal dashboard, indicate that they wanted to prepare for the SAT and then work through a series of preliminary questions to demonstrate their initial skill level and identify the gaps in their knowledge.

Speaking to the Times about how the changes and the partnership with the Khan Academy will affect the test prep industry, Coleman said, “This is a bad day for them."

But there were also business considerations at play, the Times reports. Though the number of colleges and universities that made the SAT optional in recent years was still relatively low, the popularity behind the movement and the studies cited couldn't be ignored.

From the Times:

A growing number of colleges and universities, frustrated by the minimal change to the SAT when it was revised in 2005 and motivated by a report issued in 2008 by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (Nacac), began to eliminate the SAT and its competitor, the A.C.T., as admission requirements, following the lead of several small, liberal-arts colleges that did so years before. The authors of the Nacac report cited a University of California study, which characterized the SAT as a “relatively poor predictor of student performance” and questioned the tendency of colleges to rely on the SAT as “one of the most important admission tools.” (Many of the schools that dropped test requirements saw spikes in their applications, at least in the first year.)

The changes are also a response to the growing evidence-based research that the SAT wasn't just loathed, but it was increasingly irrelevant as a way of determining students most likely to succeed in college.

In researching potential changes, Coleman met with the test's critics, including Les Perelman, a former director of writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Perelman spoke to Coleman about how tutors teach students to game the essay portion of the test.

From the Times:

Perelman said that tutors commonly taught their students to create and memorize an all-purpose essay that contained the necessary elements for a top score — “a personal anecdote, a few historical references; Florence Nightingale seems a strangely popular reference.” When test day comes, they regurgitate what they’ve committed to memory, slightly reshaping depending on the question asked. But no one is actually learning anything about writing.

With the new exam, questions will reportedly be more "grounded in the real world" and ask students to cite evidence that support answers, according to the Times. The new version will not penalize test takers for wrong answers (only rewarding them for correct ones).

Follow Mike Krumboltz on Twitter (@mikekrumboltz).

Related: Sweeping SAT changes reveled.