Analogies probably are out, but a writing sample may be in. Math could get tougher. And the SAT I college-admissions exam may never be the same.
In a step with enormous consequences for millions of high school seniors, the College Board has taken the first steps toward changing the test, which often helps decide who packs for the Ivy League and who goes to community college. Trustees of the College Board, which owns the SAT I, have told staffers to study how the test should be revised. The trustees will vote on the changes at their June meeting. The high school graduating class of 2006 would be the first to use a revised test.
"It is a big step, and I think it's the right thing for us to do," said Gaston Caperton, president of the nonprofit College Board, based in New York. The College Board has been under pressure to revise the exam since the University of California last year proposed dropping the SAT I in favor of a standardized test more closely linked to the state's high school curriculum. UC and other critics contend that the SAT favors youngsters from middle- and upper-income families over disadvantaged students.
A revised SAT I is likely to include a writing exam, which Caperton said "is something we almost did eight years ago; it makes a lot of sense." It also is likely to drop or cut back on analogies in the verbal exam, which require an understanding of the nuances of English rather than a rote memorization of vocabulary. As a result, that feature can place students who speak English as a second language at a disadvantage.
Caperton said the math portion of the exam would be "enriched" _ but over the course of a couple of years, to prevent scores from plummeting. The current math exam requires students to know algebra, geometry and arithmetic and emphasizes reasoning over problem solving. It doesn't require students to have taken Algebra II or other advanced math courses.
The University of California also is pressing the College Board to rename the revised SAT I as a way to signal a change. But Caperton insisted he is "worried about the substance of this" and hasn't "even thought about the name." The SAT is a household name with worldwide recognition.
Caperton said the College Board will still consider creating a separate test for California, the biggest SAT I market, if the state's university system still wants one.
The College Board's willingness even to talk about changing the SAT I is prompted by a recommendation this month by a University of California faculty committee that the nine-campus, 175,000-student university drop the test beginning in 2006. The committee, at the urging of UC's president, had recommended that in place of the SAT I the university rely on a test measuring what kids learn in California classrooms.
Critics of the idea of a California-only test say it would be an end-run around a California voter initiative prohibiting affirmative action in university admissions. They argue it would lower the university's academic standards by fuzzying admissions requirements.
"We'll continue to work with California," Caperton said, "but if this (new SAT I) makes sense to them, maybe they won't need another test." Whether California goes ahead with a separate test also depends on approval from the state board of regents. Regent Ward Connerly predicts a "pretty close" vote on the issue in July.
The biggest challenge in revising the SAT I may be making sure that new students' scores can be aligned with those of previous generations. There's still grumbling that the College Board lowered the SAT's standards eight years ago, when it made some statistical adjustments, although the board has always denied that. Universities use SAT scores and other data accumulated when students take the test to keep track of the ability of succeeding freshman classes. "We can do these changes without messing it up," Caperton said.
Writing a new test will take about two years, he said, because of the need for extensive field tests for cultural and gender biases, as well as academic soundness. Even so, given the glacial pace of academic change, the College Board's move is being made quickly.
The SAT I has been around since 1926 but was widely popularized decades later by Ivy League schools trying to identify bright middle-class kids who could help the colleges alter their reputations as bastions of the social elite. The test is designed to measure reasoning and critical thinking rather than just academic skills.
The SAT I is most popular on the east and west coasts. The ACT, which is owned by ACT Inc. of Iowa City, Iowa, is skewed toward measuring skills rather than innate aptitude, and is more popular in the middle of the country. Added to that testing mix are the SAT IIs, 22 subject-matter tests _ in such subjects as biology, world history, Chinese, writing and literature _ that also are owned by the College Board. UC currently requires its applicants to take either the SAT I or the ACT, plus three SAT IIs, which are given greater weight than the other two exams.
Critics of the SAT I have long charged that children from academically rich backgrounds, where the family reads and travels, for example, and the parents went to college, do better than those from less privileged backgrounds. That means, they argue, that poor kids have a worse chance of getting into college, and particularly into selective colleges. But income isn't as significant an advantage in the SAT IIs, the UC faculty committee wrote in its recommendations to drop the SAT I.
The faculty committee instead is proposing that UC applicants take a core test that includes reading, writing and mathematics, plus the use of three subject-matter tests, not unlike the SAT IIs. Both the College Board and ACT, eager for the huge market share that UC represents, have been working with the university without pay for a year on a revised test.