WASHINGTON — Essay optional. No penalties for wrong answers. The SAT college entrance exam is undergoing sweeping revisions.
Changes in the annual test that millions of students take will also do away with some vocabulary words such as "prevaricator" and "sagacious" in favor of words more commonly used in school and on the job.
College Board officials said Wednesday the update – the first since 2005 – is needed to make the exam better representative of what students study in high school and the skills they need to succeed in college and afterward. The test should offer "worthy challenges, not artificial obstacles," said College Board President David Coleman at an event in Austin, Texas.
The new exam will be rolled out in 2016, so this year's ninth graders will be the first to take it, in their junior year. The new SAT will continue to test reading, writing and math skills, with an emphasis on analysis. Scoring will return to a 1,600-point scale last used in 2004, with a separate score for the optional essay.
For the first time, students will have the option of taking the test on computers.
Once the predominant college admissions exam, the SAT in recent years has been overtaken in popularity by the competing ACT, which has long been considered more curriculum based. The ACT offers an optional essay and announced last year it would begin making computer-based testing available in 2015.
One of the biggest changes in the SAT is that the extra penalty for wrong answers, which discouraged guessing, will be eliminated. And some vocabulary words will be replaced with words such as "synthesis" and "empirical" that are used more widely in classrooms and in work settings.
Coleman said many students who are terrified they will be tested on lots of SAT words currently have one recourse: drilling with flashcards. He said educators know that flashcards are not the best way to build real word knowledge that lasts, but "when the SAT rolls around they become the royal road. Students stop reading and start flipping."
The essay will be changed in other ways, too. It will measure students' ability to analyze and explain how an author builds an argument, instead of measuring the coherence of the writing but not the quality or accuracy of the reasoning. It will be up to school districts and colleges the students apply to as to whether the essay will be required.
Each exam will include a passage drawn from "founding documents" such as the Declaration of Independence or from discussions they've inspired.
Instead of testing a wide range of math concepts, the new exam will focus on a few areas, like algebra, deemed most needed for college and life afterward. A calculator will be allowed only on certain math questions, instead of on the entire math portion.
Jim Rawlins, the director of admissions at the University of Oregon, said the changes appear "potentially helpful and useful" but it will take a few years to know the impact, after the students who take the revised test go on to college. He said some colleges are still grappling with questions about the changes made in 2005, such as how to consider the essay portion.
"It's all in the details of how it all plays out," said Rawlins, a former president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
Some high school and college admissions counselors said eliminating the penalty for wrong answers and making the essay optional could make the test less stressful for some students.
"It will encourage students to consider the questions more carefully and to attempt them, where before if a cursory glance at a question made it seem too complex to them, they may go ahead and skip that question," said Jeff Rickey, dean of admissions at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y.
A longstanding criticism of the SAT is that students from wealthier households do better on the exam because they can afford expensive test preparation classes.
The College Board seeks to defuse that by saying it will partner with the nonprofit Khan Academy to provide free test preparation materials for the redesigned SAT. It also says every income-eligible student who takes the SAT will receive four fee waivers to apply for college, which continues an effort the College Board has had to assist low-income students.
These are the first SAT upgrades since 2005 when the essay portion was added and analogy questions were removed. There have been other notable changes to the test, such as in 1994 when antonym questions were removed and calculators were allowed for the first time. The test was first used in 1926.
The SAT was taken last year by 1.7 million students. It has historically been more popular on the coasts, while the other main standardized college entrance exam, the ACT, dominated the central U.S. The ACT overtook the SAT in overall use in 2012, in part because it is taken by almost every junior in 13 states as part of those states' testing regimen.