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The SAT facelift

In the 7th grade, I was accepted into a program that would, among other things, allow me to take the SAT that same year. I had been watching my brother, who was a junior in high school at the time, take practice tests and memorize hundreds of ridiculous words like “lachrymose,” “abstersive” and “hebetude.” Needless to say, I was woefully unprepared in comparison; I finished three practice multiple choice questions before getting distracted and sneaking outside. After all, I was twelve years old, and the biggest concern in my life was passing the sit-up test in P.E. The SAT could wait.
I did abysmally. I got the kind of score you get if you skip a question on the scantron and continue to mis-bubble in the rest of the answers. And because I was an impressionable 7th grader, I took it hard — I didn’t watch TV for the next month because I was taking practice tests in the hope that my first score was bad luck. The result? I got really, really good at the SAT and really, really bad at sit-ups.

The College Board, which created and manages the SAT, has redesigned the standardized test to make it both easier and more relevant for rising college freshmen. This includes certain structural changes: no penalty for wrong answers, an optional essay and a 1600-point scale, rather than the 2400-point one (which would make my 7th grade score more impressive, but not by much). The new design also includes an altered vocabulary section, which is meant to test aptitude for much more commonly used words. Finally, the College Board realized that memorizing the term “paracentesis” would be utterly useless for everyone except for the few unfortunate pre-meds who would understand it all too well.

As for the more fundamental changes, the SAT has been redesigned to test analytical thinking, rather than rote memory or course-specific information. This means more graphs, charts and texts that require critical thinking. In addition, the math portion of the test will be extended, and will require students to put away their calculators for certain sections, emphasizing analytical skills rather than dexterity with a calculator.

Will this new version be easier? Maybe initially, but students have a knack for making a competition out of nearly anything, so I have no doubt that the SAT will readjust to its original degree of difficulty after a few classes of pleasantly surprising high school seniors. Indeed, I had grown quite fond of the “old” SAT, so when I first heard of these revisions, I was surprised, angry, nostalgic and a little embarrassed at the depth of feeling I had about this piece of news. But after gathering my thoughts and emotions, I’ve decided that these changes are an excellent first step to changing the way we think about and utilize standardized testing.

I believe in IQ. I think that if anything, it’s one statistic among many that describes a student well, especially in relation to his or her peers. And I think that by shifting the SAT’s emphasis towards analytical aptitude, we’re closer to making the SAT a more accurate measure of IQ, rather than a reflection of SES or high school savviness — or, in my case, a portrait of a girl who could have spent more time with friends, and less time comparing SAT scores with her anonymous rivals on College Confidential.

It became increasingly apparent to me, upon entering Stanford as a freshman, that only a few principles and skills from high school were actually useful in my college classes: QUICKLY reading and understanding long texts, writing well and concisely, and more than anything, understanding every inch of a normal curve — at least for the sake of knowing whether you fell above or below the mean on a test. And the thing is, standardized tests have the incredible power to change curricula nationally. Throw in a section on reading scatterplots, and you have a concerned school board petitioning for an extra week spent on data analysis. If high school is (in part) a crash course for students before they step into their first lecture series, then the College Board is certainly catering to those needs.

After all, these are the basics. While college classes are tough, they’ll review everything from the Pythagorean theorem to the process of passing a bill in Congress. It’s quick thinking that your college course will expect, and if the professor makes you use an iClicker, then your secret inability to multiply anything larger than 10 x 11, or locate Ukraine on a map, will be painfully apparent.

So I applaud College Board’s revision of the SAT, as fond as my memories are of its distant, 2400-scaled cousin. My sister, a high school freshman, will be taking this newer version as soon as it’s implemented, and I can’t wait to do the practice tests with her. Just for old times’ sake.

Uttara Sivaram would like to remind you that paracentesis is a medical procedure to remove fluid from the abdominal cavity. Ask her for more vocabulary words at

  • Paly

    “making the SAT a more accurate measure of IQ, rather than a reflection of SES”?
    Sorry, but the SAT will still be a reflection of SES. No one can even agree on what IQ is let alone how to measure it. Whether measuring skills or knowledge, the “score” will still reflect the quality of one’s education more than one’s ability. BTW, the SAT is graded on a curve so the degree of difficulty of the test is irrelevant.