The Journey of the new Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) began in February of 2013 when College Board President David Coleman asked James Montoya to lead a listening tour across the country. Montoya, the board’s senior vice president of higher education and international, was more than ready to embark on this comprehensive and fruitful mission.
“It was an amazing eight months of listening and learning,” said Montoya about a tour that included interviewing admissions’ leaders, presidents, faculty and students during visits with 80 campuses, about 200 institutions and a survey of 1,600 colleges and universities. “What came from that was the new SAT you see today.”
This past March, the College Board, a not-for-profit organization made up of 6,000 institutions, administered the new SAT, and after doing so, conducted a survey of 8,089 students comparing the new with the old. Basic changes to the test now include a focus on areas of math that matter most, an emphasis on more relevant vocabulary words, no penalty for guessing and an optional essay.
There’s much more to the new SAT than these few changes, though. After all, Montoya’s eight months on the road provided a lot of food for fodder and inspired the College Board to create an SAT that would not only test students but assist them in better preparing for college while helping admissions’ staff better evaluate skill levels of potential students.
“I heard the need for an examination that had greater alignment with classroom learning and that had a focus on those skills essential for success in college,” Montoya said. “The new SAT needed to access student readiness more effectively especially for those who tended to be at the low end of the admissions group.”
The new SAT has replaced obscure vocabulary with more applicable words used in college and real-life contexts. Also, the mathematics section is more relevant and focused on what students will need to know in college and beyond. It has changed from more general mathematics to that which applies to ratios, percentages, linear equations and reading data.
“We did this because faculty told us that students were coming to them without being able to work well with algebraic equations needed for science classes and beyond,” Montoya said. “Today, there is so much information out there that it’s key that students can take data and analyze it and understand it well for application purposes.”
As a result of SAT changes, 71 percent of students reported that the test reflected what they were learning in school; by a six to one margin students preferred the format of the new SAT to the previous version; 75 percent of students said the Reading Test was the same as or easier than they expected; 80 percent said the vocabulary on the test would be useful to them later in life, compared with 55 percent in March 2015; and 59 percent of students said the math section tests the skills and knowledge needed for success in college and careers.
Beyond surveying students about the test itself, students were also asked to give feedback on test preparation. “When I met with students, they said to me that they thought it was important that the field be leveled in regard to students having equal access to world-class test practice,” Montoya said.
Consequently, the College Board added more comprehensive and accessible test-preparation services. Today, with the Board’s partnership with Khan Academy, it provides SAT courses and practice tests free-of-charge, and all students have access to programs tailored to improving their weak areas and measuring skill levels. As a result, students are not only able to improve their test scores, but also prepare more effectively for college.
This is great news for Hispanics, low-performing students and those from underrepresented groups in higher education who haven’t had equal access to test practice services in the past.
“Even very accomplished students said they spent a lot of time learning how to take the test rather than on improving skills they needed to succeed in college. So we created a personalized test-practice component that is focused on skills that are necessary for college success rather than on test-taking skills,” Montoya said. “What I love most about the test now is that it better assesses students’ readiness for college especially for those who tend to be at the low end of the admit group.”
Since Khan Academy came on board in June 2015, more than 1.4 million students have taken advantage of its services—four times the total population of students who use all commercial test prep classes in a year combined.
“This is a game-changer,” Montoya said. “I was at a community board meeting, and they said that because of the success of Kahn Academy, they were able to save money and put money into other arenas.”
Compared with March 2015 SAT administration, there was a 19 percent decrease in the number of students who paid for test prep services, and nearly half of all examinees who recently took the SAT prepared with Khan Academy. In addition, 98 percent of the examinees who prepared with the academy found it very helpful.
With effective test preparation and testing that which matters most for students’ success, the College Board wanted to make the SAT an assessment that provided opportunities (and wasn’t just a vetting machine). “We want students to see the relevance of these tests and to associate them with opportunity,” Montoya said. “For Latinos, access is key, and that access to college begins with the PSAT and SAT. The idea now is that these assessments will create opportunities for these students.”
According to Montoya, more students have access to free test preparation materials that better prepare students for college itself than ever before. Also, more than half of all students are taking advantage of the fee-waiver option on the SAT. In addition, students who qualify for fee waivers are automatically sent four application fee waivers for colleges and universities.
“We now have an increased number of Latinos taking the SATs. We can now connect these students with colleges, fee waivers and opportunities,” Montoya said. “It is so important that Latino students know that they can take the test and don’t have to worry about paying if they come from a low-income home.”
Beyond offering fees waivers and free test preparation, today’s SAT and PSAT also open more doors for Latino students and other low-income students than ever before.
“By having Latinos taking the PSAT, we can identify students who have the ability to be successful in advanced placement, and we share this information with those students and parents, so they can then go to their schools and request special classes,” Montoya said. “We are making sure Latinos are taking the right classes,” he added, explaining how the College Board works with technology, the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, the Hispanic Scholarship Fund and other organizations to open doors for all students.
“Assessment not connected to opportunity is not relevant anymore,” Montoya concluded. “And, I think, especially for first-generation families in the Latino community, this new SAT now represents new opportunities.” •