March 6, 2014 in Nation/World

SAT of 2016: Partial ban on calculators, essay optional

Larry Gordon Los Angeles Times

In a major overhaul of the SAT college entrance exam, students starting in 2016 will no longer be required to write an essay, will not be penalized for wrong answers and will not be able to freely use calculators.

The College Board announcement Wednesday shook up a test that is taken by about 1.7 million high school students annually and, though its influence has been waning, remains a major factor in college admission decisions nationally.

The shifts, officials said, are part of an effort to better align the 88-year-old exam with what students learn in high school and to get away from any advantages they may gain from expensive private tutoring.

The main SAT will be condensed to two sections from the current three, and the top score possible will be 1,600 – as it had been for many decades. (The present 2,400 point maximum began with the introduction of the essay seven years ago.) The writing portion will be optional – though many colleges still may demand applicants take it – and will be graded separately.

College Board President David Coleman said the revised reading exam will drop the most obscure vocabulary words and instead “focus on words students will use over and over again.” The math problems will be less theoretical and more linked to real-life questions.

“While we build on the best of the past, we commit today that the redesigned SAT will be more focused and useful, more clear and open, than ever before,” Coleman said in a speech in Austin, Texas, that was streamed on the Internet.

Under the new testing structure, calculators will be banned on some sections of the math exam and students will no longer have a quarter of a point deducted from their final score for each wrong answer. In addition, the College Board, which owns the SAT, said it would start offering the exam online as well as in the traditional paper version.

Although test sponsors long have argued that coaching does not help students significantly raise their scores, Coleman acknowledged Wednesday that many people believe tutoring does lend an advantage, worsening the sense of “inequality and injustice” surrounding the SAT.

“It is time for an admissions assessment that makes it clear that the road to success is not last-minute tricks or cramming, but the challenging learning students do each day,” Coleman said.

To help address that issue, the College Board is starting a partnership with the online Khan Academy to offer a free series of practice exams and videos about good test-taking methods. The Silicon Valley-based academy has become one of the most popular online education sites, particularly its math offerings.

By all appearances, the new SAT will be more populist and more in line with the new federal Common Core teaching standards for K-12 education adopted by most states. Math questions, for instance, will concentrate more on basic areas of problem solving, data analysis and algebra.

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