The college board officially announced its specific plans for the new SAT yesterday (LINK TO NEWS RELEASE). And now teachers, tutors, students and parents everywhere are rushing to try to piece together what it all means. Is this good news? Bad news? Why did they make such drastic changes and how will this affect me? I’ll do my best to explain the major elements of the changes and what they may mean for you.

The essay will be optional. It will be on a prompt known in advance, but will now be based on support material that is provided (and that source material will vary from test to test). Students will no longer need to come up with supports on their own or develop a stance on the spot to an unknown prompt. This is supposed to better reflect college writing, but seems to require far less independent thinking and it *may* really be a way to simply make it easier to use autograders (automated systems for grading essays). if that’s the case, technical elements (grammar, sentence length, essay length) will become more important and things like creativity, persuasiveness and adapatability will become less important.

The sentence completions will be replaced with “word in context” questions. This appears to be a response to concerns that the vocabulary being tested is just not useful beyond the SAT itself. Students will now be asked to select definitions based on words as they are used in the sentence, similar to some of the questions you see on the passage-based questions like “In context, ‘Shadowy’ (line 41) primarily serves to suggest something (gloomy, secret, sinister, concealed or unsubstantiated)” from p. 392 of the Official SAT Study Guide. This will reduce the effectiveness of acquiring large amounts of vocabulary words and of any strategy based on studying prefixes, roots and suffixes.

The reading and writing will be combined into a single 200-800 score, which will be combined with math to return to a 400-1600 total score range. It is not clear yet whether that means half reading and half grammar or some other balance of the two. No matter how it gets split up, it would seem to diminish the value of those two from by saying that together they represent as much as the math does alone.

The penalty for wrong answers is being removed. You now have no reason at all not to guess on everything. On the plus side, this will eliminate all the confusion involved when students hear different theories on when they should guess or omit a question. On the negative side, it removes what is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the test and one that can really help define an under-appreciated standard of college readiness – do you know your limits? It also makes the SAT more like the ACT (which is true of many of the changes). The SAT’s claim that neither test reflects school performance is quite rightly rejected by Jon Erikson of the ACT as inaccurate. The ACT does tend to reflect traditional school performance. The SAT does tend to help show abilities (or weaknesses) that may not have been obvious in school performance. It’s exactly that difference that makes me not want a more ACT-like SAT. The combination allowed a wider range of potentially capable students to find a way to show their best.

The math will cover less territory and part of it will have to be done without a calculator. I have thought for many years that the use of advanced calculators on the SAT (and even more so on the ACT) detracts from the assessment of actual math skills. My preference would have been to limit students to a basic dollar store level calculator, but no calculator would be preferable to continuing to allow access to one that can store and solve virtually anything they run across.

There will be some science and other data related questions. This again makes it more like the ACT, though how similar it will be remains to be seen. I’ve always had a soft spot for the ACT Science section and wouldn’t object to seeing some of that incorporated into the SAT.

It will be possible to take it on a computer. It isn’t clear yet how quickly or broadly this option will be available, or if it is intended to develop as an option or as eventually replacing ‘by hand’ with all students being required to do it on the computer even if they would prefer not to.

My overall impression is that most of the changes are really about lowering their own long-term costs, trying to combat the idea that tutoring makes a difference (which they spent decades firmly denying but now abruptly apparently are admitting does help), trying to combat score gaps that show us ugly truths about the problems with education in the U.S., and attempting to make themselves more like the ACT, which has been gaining popularity. I was all for an overhaul, but would have liked to see one that made the SAT itself even better. Students will first be able to test in the new format with the October 2015 PSAT/NMSQT and will be switched to the new format for the SAT as of 2016. They will not have the option to choose, though students in that time frame can (and in my opinion should) try to take one before the change and one after. For more information on the new test, you can check out the FAQ provided by the College Board. You can also check here or at the Gotham Blog for updates as more information comes in.