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What's REALLY driving the new SAT

 The new SAT promises to be a hour shorter – but with a 50-minute "optional" essay.
The new SAT promises to be a hour shorter – but with a 50-minute "optional" essay.
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As anyone who hasn't been under a rock for the past few days must know, the SAT is changing. In October 2015, the new PSAT will debut, and in March 2016, this year's freshman will be the first class to take this newest rendition of the classic college entrance exam. The SAT was essentially unchanged from the 1970's until a modified, longer test was unveiled in 2005. Now, just as college admissions officers have gotten a handle on the 2005 scoring and content changes, David Coleman, the new head of the College Board, has announced what he touts as a completely revamped test. In a recent New York Times article, "The Story Behind the SAT Overhaul," Mr. Coleman vilified the test prep industry as he extolled the virtues of this new edition.

Dave Coleman's antipathy to the test prep world is disingenuous (to use a couple – now perhaps obsolete – SAT words). If test prep is so meaningless, why does he hate it so and claim to have constructed a test that is impervious to it? And why would test prep make such a difference for rich kids who can afford it over poor kids who can't? Children from educated homes where learning is valued, language is rich (even if the bank account isn't), and intellectual intercourse is active, will do better on tests. They'll also do better in school and get better jobs as adults. The correlation with income is not that income simply buys better test prep, but that families with more money tend to also be headed by parents who are well-educated, share those values with their children, inculcate expectations of academic success, and are able to support those goals.

If test prep is so evil and the current test so prone to clever gaming, why the new partnership between the College Board and Khan Academy? Khan got his start by posting video tutorials for every math question in the first edition of the College Board's SAT blue book of practice tests. He happens to be a great tutor, whose videos I recommended to my students – until this week. Those helpful videos have suddenly disappeared now that Khan is in partnership with the College Board, preventing students from using the very resource that made him so successful and served students so well. His services were already available for free, like plenty of others. The CollegeBoard itself has lots of online resources for prep, so clearly, availability of resources for free study is not a new or comprehensive solution to the problem of inequality in test results.

As a longtime SAT and ACT test prep tutor, I see Mr. Coleman's outrage as a marketing ploy: He's really fighting the ACT, which is now the official standardized test in thirteen states, and counting. The ACT has ingeniously posited itself as the un-SAT, the achievement-oriented aptitude test. States have bought that line, which saves them the cost and controversy of developing their own comprehensive graduation exams. The clincher is that no one who is being taught for the ACT – which is offered for free and at school – will study for the SAT. For the College Board, it's game over.

The SAT, for all its faults, does test reasoning and mental creativity and agility. The grammar and usage is more rigorous than the ACT. The vocabulary that people love to hate is largely composed of words that an educated person should know – or be able to figure out from context. Yes, learning techniques and strategies can help raise a score, but why not reward the student who can assess how to approach a test? There is plenty of other unfairness in SAT and ACT testing. Mr. Coleman's changes are just recycled wine in a new bottle, giving the test prep companies a great opportunity to redesign their books and marketing campaigns. For everyone else – students, parents, college admissions officers, guidance counselors – there's no gain.


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About the author: Karen Berlin Ishii, a graduate of Brown University, has 25+ years of experience as a teacher and test prep tutor. Karen teaches students in New York and internationally via Skype for the PSAT, SAT, ACT, ISEE, SSAT, SHSAT, IELTS, TOEFL and GRE, and also offers tutoring in reading, writing and math. Learn more about Karen at

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