Wave of test changes hitting high-schoolers

jmink@macon.comMarch 26, 2014 

It’s one of the most popular college-entrance exams, but in the next couple of years, students will be taking a revamped SAT.

The College Board recently announced sweeping changes scheduled to take place in 2016, and school officials are now preparing to communicate those changes to students, parents and teachers. The changes would affect current freshmen who plan to take the test as juniors.

To better measure the skills students are learning in high school -- and will need in the future -- the test will ax obscure vocabulary words, make the essay optional, revert to a top score of 1,600 and enforce no penalties for wrong answers, among other changes.

Now, “My primary focus is communicating these changes to parents and teachers,” said Tandi Pressley, director of gifted and advanced academics for Bibb County schools.

The changes will impact how students prepare for the exam. In the future, for example, students won’t be able to use calculators on some math portions, Pressley said. Currently, students can use calculators on any portion of the test, if they choose.

“Math teachers will want to give students practice” without using calculators, she said.

While the current Scholastic Aptitude Test focuses on a wide range of mathematics, the redesigned test will center on fewer math areas. Specifically, those topics are problem solving and data analysis, algebra and advanced math, according to the College Board.

The College Board made that change because research shows those math topics are widely used in college and careers. Some questions will draw from other math topics, but the majority of the math portion will concentrate on those areas.

At Howard High School, some math teachers offer preparation sessions -- particularly classes with many juniors (the school year when most students first take the SAT), said Kevin Adams, chairman of the math department at Howard High School.

Still, there is not a major push for teachers to focus on SAT preparation.

“I don’t know that the SAT changing is going to have a large impact on daily teachers in the classroom,” Adams said.

The SAT isn’t the only exam overhaul students are facing. The statewide end-of-course-tests for high schoolers are changing to line up with the new Common Core curriculum.

The tests are becoming more challenging in some areas, officials say. For example, the latest end-of-course test results included a new subject, coordinate algebra, that had one of the lowest pass rates across the state.

There seem to be a lot of exam changes at once for students, Adams said.

In the midst of massive testing and curriculum changes, some observers question whether the revamped exams, including the SAT, will truly line up with what’s being taught in the classroom.

“It would be nice for kids to know that not only are we holding them to this higher standard, but the test to get them into college is more aligned with what they’re doing in the classroom,” Adams said. “But I question whether that’s possible.”

Still, the SAT redesign is meant to measure what students need to understand for college, according to the College Board.

In the reading and writing section, students will be required to support their answers with evidence from the texts they read -- something they are not required to do on the current SAT. That change should help align the test with Advanced Placement exams students take to earn college credit in their AP courses, Pressley said.

Also, the reading exams will include a portion from one of the founding documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, or an important historical speech, such as the Gettysburg Address.

Additionally, the test will be offered in both paper and digital form. Now, the test is paper only. The essay portion will be optional, though several colleges and universities still will require an essay score. Students will have to consider what colleges they are applying to before deciding whether to take the SAT essay, Pressley said.

“Our main focus is to communicate that,” she said.

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