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SAT Gets A Makeover


For many students, that first step to higher education for tech fields - or any other, for that matter - is the SAT exam. For years, many students and educators have complained that the exam is a poor reflection of how prepared kids are for college and that it gives an unfair advantage to students whose families can afford expensive test prep courses. So the SAT is getting a makeover. The College Board has announced changes to the exam that are set to go into effect in 2016. We wanted to hear more about that, so we've called Erik Robelen. He's assistant managing editor at Education Week. Erik, thanks so much for joining us.

ERIK ROBELEN: Hi, thanks for having me on the show.

MARTIN: So what are some of the major changes we will see in the new SAT? And what's the rationale?

ROBELEN: OK, some of the key changes - and what we got yesterday was sort of what they're calling a high-level blueprint for what's to come. So we don't have all of the details yet. But some of the key changes are - number one, there was an essay section introduced in 2005, and that's going to become optional. A few others, there's going to be no penalty for wrong answers anymore. There's going to be a new focus on requiring students to support their answers with evidence from the text. One that a lot of people will be happy about I'm sure is they promised no more of those obscure SAT words that you learned and forget, you know, on flashcards. And in math, they're promising for a much more clear and narrow focus on a few key areas that they believe are critical. And all of it...

MARTIN: And what's the rationale for that? What's the rationale for all of that?

ROBELEN: The rationale for all of it is they say that - the College Board says it's drawing on the evidence of what students and young people really need to be successful in college and to be successful in careers. So in math, you know, it may have sort of covered so many areas that it was hard for students to focus, and some of the questions may not have been on the kind of content they felt are the things that you really need to move forward and succeed in college.

MARTIN: We understand that the College Board hopes to make the exam more accessible...


MARTIN: ...For low-income students.


MARTIN: What does that mean?

ROBELEN: Well, a few things that they are talking about - number one, they are talking about some fee waivers for getting students actually into college, so presumably they would, you know, maybe be more likely to take the SAT. And I will say that those are already available, but now they're going to directly provide them to income-eligible kids. But maybe the most notable here is their plans to develop with Khan Academy - who many people have heard of - a sort of new test prep program online that would be free to everyone. And they'd have apparently thousands of sample questions and they would have instructional videos and all kinds of other content to level the playing field. You know, these days kids from more affluent families, they can afford these high-priced test preps, workshops and seminars, and this is an idea to help level the playing field. There are going to be some barriers, though, to how much that will actually level the playing field though, I would imagine.

MARTIN: How does this relate to the Common Core standards? Many people will have heard of these - people who have children who are currently in primary school, elementary school, middle school, below college level, will have heard about these Common Core standards, and these are - most of the states have signed on to these.


MARTIN: Is the SAT tracking what is being taught and expected in those standards? Or how do the two relate to each other - or do they?

ROBELEN: They do. I mean, there is what I would call a sort of striking resemblance between key features of this blueprint for the SAT and some of the core features of the Common Core State Standards. And that's probably no accident, given, number one, that 45 states - or 46 states have adopted the Common Core and, number two, that David Coleman, who became the president of the College Board a year and a half ago, was actually one of the lead writers of the English Language Arts standards. So he knows that well, he's passionate about the Common Core. It was a little striking in all of their materials yesterday and in the presentation, there wasn't any focus on the Common Core.

As you probably know, it's also encountered some increased criticism of late, so it may have been that this was not the time to emphasize that. But I think that most people who would look at the two would say that they have a lot in common, and, you know, that does fit also with the College Board's stated goal here to have material that is more relevant to what students are studying in quality high school courses.

MARTIN: Wait - you can't help but note, though, that over the last couple of years as I understand it - I think that's the last two years - another test called the ACT has outpaced the SAT in test takers and is increasingly being adopted by state education officials. Briefly, if you can, why is that? And are, in part, these changes a response to that?

ROBELEN: Well, that's a good question. Certainly, some people who we've heard from believe that, you know, that is definitely part of what's happening here. That the market - the landscape is changing. The market share has gone a little bit - tipped a little bit over to the side of ACT, which has seen its participation in that grow. And frankly, some people who look at these plan changes to the SAT argue that the changes might make it move more closely in line with the ACT.

MARTIN: We only have about 45 seconds left so what's been the reaction so far? What are you hearing so far to - reaction to these changes?

ROBELEN: Well, we're hearing sort of a mix of things, as always in education. You know, the one thing you can say for sure is that anything is going to be controversial. So I'm sure there's going to be plenty of debate. We have heard certainly from some people who welcome a greater focus in, you know, a more limited set of areas and certainly the idea of, like, citing evidence from a text to support your answer seems to be a pretty reasonable way to go...


ROBELEN: ...That I know a lot of educators will probably be happy about that.

MARTIN: OK, I think we have to leave it there for now. More to come. Keep us posted.


MARTIN: Erik Robelen is assistant managing editor at Education Week. And we reached him in Bethesda, Maryland. Erik, thank you.

ROBELEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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