Originally Published in Hindustan Times Education Supplement
News has been buzzing over the past week with reports and analysis of imminent changes to the SAT. Last week, David Coleman, President of College Board, which owns and administers the test, revealed the details of the proposed changes. In the new version of the test, the writing section will be optional, scoring will return to a 1600 point scale, guessing will not be penalized and the content of the verbal and math sections will be revamped to reflect more practical material.
Despite outside speculation that a recent loss of market share to the competitive ACT exam (more of an achievement test than an aptitude test) has motivated the College Board’s SAT changes, the College Board maintains that the new test is being designed to gauge a more realistic sense of what students have learned in the past and their capacity to succeed in college level work. Coleman says “Instead of encouraging students to memorize flashcards, the test should promote the idea that they must read widely throughout their high-school years.” As for math, the sections will cover fewer topics which reflect a student’s readiness for further training and the use of calculators will be limited (currently it is unlimited).
The SAT changes will not take effect until 2016, so students who are now in 10th and 11th will still be taking the current SAT. Until then perhaps College Board will rethink some of their America-focus and ask how a the test can, at least in part, better meet the needs of its global examinees.
As an exam which is used by thousands of colleges in the US, the SAT has long been the benchmark for students around the world to evaluate their chances at top colleges in America. A multi-billion dollar industry has grown up around preparing students for the exam – indeed the ability to prepare for the test is part of the problem. As opponents of the exam have maintained for a while, more than anything else, the SAT predicts your income level, not your college success. Coleman seems to have conceded this point by explaining that the changes are intended, in part, to “rein in the intense coaching and tutoring on how to take the test that often gave affluent students an advantage.”
As the speculation continues, we here in India need to ask how this will affect our students. I am worried that Mr. Coleman seems to be reorienting the test back to an American perspective. This is a move in the wrong direction, given that a growing number of test takers are outside the US (89,000 in 2012) and that the number of international applicants to US colleges has grown exponentially over the past 10 years. Coleman is quoted as saying the test “will use as its source materials pieces of writing — from science articles to historical documents to literature excerpts — which research suggests are important for educated Americans to know and understand deeply.” This is all fine, considering that students will be studying in the US and therefore be considered educated in America, though not probably qualifying as ‘educated Americans.’ But to assert that the new test is meant to test more of what students have learned in school, rather than obscure or irrelevant knowledge, seems contradictory; its unlikely that international students’ prior knowledge will prepare them for questions about American history or the country’s leaders. As ideas, knowledge and solutions become more global, shouldn’t the goal be to orient all children outwardly?
What all these changes really mean is that Indian students will have to prepare for the exam outside school, as they have been doing all along. So perhaps the new format will not transform Indian students’ experience with the SAT – it may only transform the tools used by their tutors to help them prepare.