Wednesday, February 17, 2016


By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

We’re only about a month away from the first administration of the new SAT, and it’s safe to say no other upgrade has received half the attention this one has.  Between College Board’s groundbreaking test-prep partnership with Khan Academy, and the end of students being penalized for guessing, it’s safe to say this isn’t the SAT of old.

Happily, most juniors don’t seem all that impressed by the changes in the SAT, and that makes perfect sense, since they never took the old one.  The real question on their minds is much more fundamental—should I take it?  They may not know just what all the changes are, but they know the test has changed—and if they didn’t previously know the turbulence change brings to the testing world, the fact that they don’t have a paper copy of the PSAT they took four months ago is more than enough to bring them up to speed.  Since a similar delay in SAT scores could deeply affect the timing of their college applications, they’re worried—and rightly so.

A good number of school counselors (including me) have long advised students to take both the SAT and ACT once; determine which one is the test that’s best for them, and take that test a second time.  Just like no two English teachers take the same approach when discussing The Great Gatsby, no two approaches to assessment are the same, even if they claim to cover the same content.  The best way to figure out the one you like best is to try them both out; once a student knows that, they should give their favorite test one more try.

Not every counselor follows that strategy, since tests cost money and take time to prepare for.  That’s understandable in most years—but in this year of many college changes, the time might be right to err on the side of a little extra testing.  This is especially true in states that offer the SAT for free to all juniors.  Free is great—but given the delivery challenges we’ve seen with the PSAT, and given that March SAT results aren’t scheduled to be delivered until May at the earliest, students aren’t going to have much time to plan for a June re-take under the best of circumstances.  Since many public colleges hope to have college applications in late September, now isn’t the time to rely on a Fall testing re-take.

This isn’t to say students should skip the new SAT completely.  Last fall’s PSAT and the test prep material on Khan Academy offer strong clues of what to expect—and while colleges have no experience interpreting the new SAT results, it will be hard for them to say a high score has no real value.  At the same time, there’s enough mystery surrounding the new test (and enough concern about when the results will arrive) that students will want to hedge their bets and have a spring ACT score to share with colleges.

Low income students who rightly worry about the costs of so much testing need to be supported with the fee waivers counselors have—and if we run out, there’s no better time to ask for more than this year, since both testing companies are trying to curry our favor and support. As we wade through the waters of change, students will need ample support and opportunity to show what they know.  Supporting their right to do so should be the core of all the advice we offer them, and testing is no exception. 

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