College Board planning to retool main SAT test

Response to criticism that exam doesn't reflect what's learned in class


The College Board is planning to revamp the main SAT test taken by generations of college-bound students, acknowledging in part that it is doing so in response to criticism from the University of California and others that the test does not reflect enough of what is learned in the classroom.

The exact nature of the changes, which would take effect with the high school class graduating in 2006, will not be determined until the College Board trustees next meet in June. But the College Board trustees took the first step this week by asking the staff for recommendations on revising the three-hour verbal and math test. The plan for revising the test was first reported in yesterday's Wall Street Journal.

Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, said the revised test would probably require students to provide a handwritten short essay and multiple-choice writing questions, with more advanced math problems based less on aptitude and reasoning and more on problem-solving learned in second-year algebra or perhaps trigonometry. The exam's math problems cover only arithmetic, first-year algebra and geometry.

"Obviously the writing is a whole new thing, but it's something that was recommended to be added as far back as 1993," Caperton said. "You can only change so much if you want to have longitudinal data, comparing results over the years, which is very important. We're not creating a whole new test, we're making some improvements. I would be very surprised if more than half the test changed. Most of it will be similar to what's been on there in the past."

Caperton said that although it is too early to outline how each section of the SAT I might change, it is likely that the analogy section of the verbal test would either be eliminated or cut back.

"Analogies have analytical thinking that is very important, but some people feel that reading comprehension can measure the same kind of intellectual skill and maybe in a fairer way," he said. "Reading is more consistent with what people are learning in school and more connected to the curriculum."

Although Caperton played down the extent of the likely changes, his description of the goals of the process reflect a profound change, turning what was once specifically deemed an aptitude, or intelligence, test - until 1990, the SAT stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test - into an achievement test designed to measure what is learned in the classroom.

"What you're learning in the classroom should be critically important to how you do on this test," Caperton said. "That should help focus people on improving the classroom, making it more and more clear that the issue is not the test, it's an unequal educational system."

The College Board has been re-thinking the SAT I for some years, as more colleges, including Bates, Bowdoin and Mount Holyoke, have dropped it from their requirements for admissions.

But the board was galvanized last year when Richard C. Atkinson, president of the University of California, proposed replacing the SAT I with a test that would more closely reflect the state's high school curriculum. That university, and other critics of the test, have expressed concern that the SAT I favors students from middle- and upper-income families over poorer children.

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