This is the second part of a two-part interview with Supplemental Education and Test Preparation expert Akil Bello. In Part 1, Akil discussed test preparation education and his work with students. In this Part 2, Akil shares his professional review of the new SAT and how classroom teachers can help their high school students be more prepared for this important step in their college application process.
Cari Harris: There was a flurry of press about the new SAT when it came out in June. Can you point us to the best analysis that you read?
Akil Bello: Since the redesigned SAT was announced in March of 2014, until today and probably until the test actually debuts in March of 2016 there was and will be a ton written. A lot of what’s written is topical trash regurgitating the party line from the writers of the SAT. I find that critical analyses of the test are harder to find. Here are a few that I’ve liked:
“New SAT, New Problems,” The Atlantic, January 2015
“The Story Behind the SAT Overhaul,” The New York Times, March 2014.
“How to Fix the SAT,” Slate, May 2014
“The SAT: a New Core Subject in Schools?” The Atlantic, June 2015.
“3 Reasons You Shouldn’t Take the New SAT,” Forbes, April 2015.
CH: Please run down the main changes in the new SAT and what makes it different for students who will be taking it:
AB: It’s hard to know yet which changes will impact students performance, and which will simply change how they approach the test. But here are a few key changes that I’m monitoring closely to see how students react to them:
Time per question: The new SAT seems to be significantly more generous with time per question. At first glance this is good for students, even if some of the early sample tests suggest that they’ll be a number of longer questions on the test.
No guessing penalty: Removing the guessing penalty is awesome for students and should help students feel more comfortable (I’m not sure it will impact scores since it will benefit all equally)
Optional Essay: Since the introduction of the essay in 2005 many colleges haven’t cared at all about essay score or performance. This change finally acknowledges that the essay is only relevant at a small subset of schools. Placing the essay at the end of the exam and making it optional shortens the test and removes a mostly irrelevant feature of the test.
Fewer Answer Choices: The test has reduced the number of choices for multiple choice questions to 4 from 5 increasing the probability of a correct guess. This will probably only have a minor impact on performance because it only changes the probability of guessing correctly by 5% but it sort of feels nice.
No Calculator Section: The Math portion of the SAT is now comprised of 2 sections, one forbids the use of a calculator and the other permits it. The language here is important because no question requires a calculator. The SAT has never required a calculator but this labeling of sections I worry will confuse students into believing the calculator is necessary for some questions. Given that today’s kids rarely look at numbers without taking out a calculator, I could see the “No Calculator” causing severe (and unnecessary) angst for some test-takers.
Question Style: The new SAT (based on my early assessments) has seemed to have shifted the manner it asks students to think about the topics. Math questions on the redesigned test often have non-numeric answer choices and reading and writing questions are based on charts and graphs. The type of reasoning required of test-takers has also changed dramatically. The prior version of the SAT was at test that was enamored with using math, reading, and writing rules to test cleverness and specificity. The redesigned SAT seems to be leaning toward using math, reading, and writing rules to test theoretical understanding and observation. I”m not sure whether the testing experience this creates will be more or less removed from the experiences that students have in school. I’m sure some students will find it better and others will think it might as well be a test written entirely in Swahili.
CH: What are some positives and negatives about the changes?
AB: Overall, I’m fairly neutral about the entire thing. I think it’s much ado about nothing. Some students will benefit from the changes, others won’t. At the end of the day the distribution of scores will be what they were before the change, it’s not like College Board is designing a test in which the primary objective is that everyone get a perfect score. In the end about 80% of test takers will score between a 400 and 600 on each section of the new test. So if the test is easier overall it will be easier for everyone and if it’s harder it will be harder for everyone.
For an individual student the positive changes the redesigned SAT brings are:
1. Removing the guessing penalty removes one of the advantages kids who prepped had over those who didn’t,
2. Removing knowledge of vocabulary as a skill tested in isolation, makes preparing for the test slightly easier, and
3. Narrowing the range of math topics tested again makes preparing for the test slightly easier. This may not make performance better but it does make preparing less about rote memorization.
The negative elements of the change that I see for a test-taker are:
1. Individual sections are longer and that can be mentally taxing,
2. The attempted integration of science thinking into every section is awkward and unusual and that might confuse or bother test-takers and
3. Reducing the difference between the SAT and ACT will be a disadvantage for that portion of test-takers who excelled on the old SAT over the ACT.
CH: How will your practice change because of the new SAT?
AB: There be no significant changes. Test prep will still exist and look much the same as it has for the last 30+ years. Just like when the test changed in 1994 and in 2004, test prep companies will update materials, develop new strategies, and continue to prepare students to perform their best. Despite what College Board wants the public to believe, the SAT will always be coachable, just like anything else that can be learned if you have a good coach/teacher you’ll do better than those without that expert advice.
CH: What advice can you give teachers (in any subject area) of students who are starting their junior year this year and will be taking the SAT next spring? How can teachers weave in the best practices of SAT preparation into their own teaching and work with students?
AB: In a perfect world, this will never happen. I don’t want teachers changing their lessons to help students on the SAT. That to me is the cart leading the horse. In a perfect world, the SAT would never influence what happens in the classroom. The SAT should test things students have learned, in the manner they’re expected to learn it.
In the real world, teachers can do a few things that should positively influence SAT performance and performance on other standardized tests.
- Learn the style of questioning of the SAT and integrate that type of thinking into lessons and assignments. For example, as an English teacher I’d be sure to incorporate discussions of key grammar and punctuation rules that the SAT likes to test but that I might not have been focusing on because I felt other rules were more important. If I were a history teacher, I’d be sure to integrate discussions of any charts and graphs while reading text, I’d ensure that students are comfortable discussing and evaluating these numerical elements of passages as normal and expected.
- Build students comfort working under time restrictions. Often classroom teachers create tests that are designed to be finished by every test-taker so that the allocation of time is not a factor in student performance. If I was a classroom teacher I’d build a bit more urgency into my testing. I’d want to help students learn to perform better under more aggressive time limitation. While the redesigned SAT is at face value providing more time per individual questions its likely not a generous most teachers are when they create tests.
- Focus on specificity. Teachers should (and I’m sure some do) work to help students understand that reading on a test is different than reading a novel. The importance of an individual word to overall comprehension on an SAT question is probably much greater than the value of any individual word on a state exam, homework question, or teacher’s weekly quiz. The SAT often creates distinctions between answer choices that are entirely dependent on one word, getting kids ready to do that would help a great deal.
CH: How do you think the new SAT will help students pursuing higher ed?
AB: I don’t think that the SAT does help students. The SAT isn’t designed to help students. The SAT is designed to help colleges. It’s function and sole purpose to to help colleges predict who or won’t will be successful in their first year classes. If a student does well they on the SAT that doesn’t make them more ready for college that simply gives a college another data point that says they are ready. To give an analogy, how would winning the scoring title help Lebron James in his pursuit of a league MVP? It doesn’t really but it might be a metric that some people look at in judging league MVP.
CH: Anything else we should know about the new SAT or SAT preparation for our high school students?
AB: Anything that can be tested can be learned. The SAT does not measure some genetically predetermined unchangeable aspect of human make-up. The SAT measures ability to apply things a test-taker should learn during their k – 12 education. It measures those things in a high stress environment and it measures them differently that a teacher measures performance in a classroom or on classroom tests. Despite any differences in how they measure these things, if you learn the things measured and tested well, you’ll be able to achieve a good performance.
Also remember that while the SAT continues to be important in college admission it is only one factor among many.