Why the SAT Won't Penalize You For Wrong Answers

Thursday, March 06, 2014

SAT test preparation books sit on a shelf at a Barnes and Noble store June 27, 2002 in New York City. (Mario Tama/Getty)

The College Board has announced some major changes to the structure, scoring, and content of the SAT. Cyndie Schmeiser, Chief of Assessments for the College Board, explains the new changes, and what prompted them.

Key Changes to the SAT

  • Back to 1600 points (instead of 2400)
  • No more 'SAT words'; the vocabulary will instead focus on words students "use consistently"
  • The essay is optional
  • A different scoring system that gives points for correct answers instead of penalizing for wrong answers
  • "The math section will draw from fewer topics"
  • The College Board is partnering with Khan Academy to create free test prep for the redesigned test


Cyndie Schmeiser

Comments [30]

Matt Friedman

At the end of this show, Brian said that he he would be interviewing Sal Khan about how his Academy will be providing free SAT prep. But as far as I can see, this interview didn't happen (even though Khan's photo appears in the Friday show's synopsis). Does anyone know what happened with this interview and whether it still is to come?

Mar. 10 2014 11:24 AM
Matt Friedman

At the end of this show, Brian said that he he would be interviewing Sal Khan about how his Academy will be providing free SAT prep. But as far as I can see, this interview didn't happen (even though Khan's photo appears in the Friday show's synopsis). Does anyone know what happened with this interview and whether it still is to come?

Mar. 10 2014 11:22 AM

The vocabulary on the SAT (as it appears in the College Board SAT prep book), are words that a college student and college graduate would, could and should use. A student who reads a lot does not really even need to study for this part. And the math is pretty basic, doesn't really go beyond the first half of Algebra II.

The essay topics, on the other hand, are broad and uninteresting. From what one reads, the it can be easily gamed by preparing in advance with a couple of interesting quotes and examples that are sufficiently general that they can be rammed into any essay.

So, overall, the test is being dumbed down, but at least the College Board is recognizing how meaningless the essay is.

Mar. 09 2014 02:27 PM

It's an industry, that's why it persists.

Mar. 08 2014 08:41 PM
Margaret from UWS

Tutor Caller: You "can't do anything as a tutor to help them with vocabulary"!? You can't teach them the etymological roots of their native language, so they can figure at least some things out that they haven't seen before? Student Caller: The essay shouldn't necessarily be the best you are ever capable of doing; rather the best you can do under pressure - also a life preparedness skill.

Mar. 07 2014 03:43 PM
Donald J. Sepanek from Bayonne, NJ

If teaching skills are poor, the simple solution is to just dumb-down the tests. Then, of course, you have to launch a public relations campaign to try and convince people that you're actually IMPROVING the test. Education is more important now than ever - we don't have time for this nonsense.

Mar. 06 2014 03:39 PM
Mr. Bad from NYC

@ sburgernutr

Precisely! Math does not discriminate, there is no "cultural bias" inherent in an algebraic equation. I also recall (1995) that most of the verbal questions, especially those tricky analogies, were mini logic puzzles that were purposely designed to allow someone with only a pedestrian vocabulary to find the answer through a process of elimination.

I don't think that most people realize that college admission boards understand the differences in the quality of public education in this country and how much it varies from place to place. A school based in a poor rural backwater will not be as competitive as one based in a rich northeastern suburb but that doesn't mean, obviously, that the kid from the poor rural area isn't smart. Intelligence is hard to measure but it generally means that one can intuitively understand without being "shown" and perform mental tasks with ease and precision that others find taxing, difficult or impossible. The SAT measures that potential very well.

Intelligence isn't a predictor of success in very many occupations and for the most part average intelligence augmented by looks, talent or a trade is more than enough to allow a person to function successfully within a modern society. Our society is set up for the lowest common denominator and most people perceive intelligence in themselves and others more as a function of their personal vanity than anything else. But higher education exists (and should only exist IMO) for the purpose of finding and helping the truly intelligent to realize their potential and make a meaningful contribution to society that in some cases they are singularly capable of making. Take away the SAT and you take away a tool they can use to demonstrate their ability and make it harder for colleges to find these people. In the long run we all suffer. Nothing is more tragic in life than wasted potential.

Mar. 06 2014 02:43 PM

Finally, I can't help it - even being a science nerd who managed to escape with the minimal amount of coursework possible in anything but science and math - I do not find the word "turgid" to be a particularly challenging vocabulary word. In fact, it is used a lot in science and in the cheap bodice ripper romance novels my mother hid under the bed that I discovered in my early teens.

Mar. 06 2014 02:04 PM

As someone who studied the sciences as an undergraduate and graduate student, I beg to differ with some of the others who have commented here. The SAT that I took long ago WAS a logic test. I'm not quite sure what Ivan has against being "analytic" - and I don't think it took "extraordinary" capabilities. I think our society could use a little more "analytic" thought than the prevailing trend towards opinions without analysis.

I came from a family that had not planned for the possibility of my attending college. I received a scholarship based on the SAT test. I still had to work to pay for rent and food, which meant that I sometimes took on too many odd jobs and my grades suffered. When I worked less than 20 hours a week I had a straight A average, but that was not always possible if I wanted to eat. So there were times when I was so overworked that I would get straight C's because I was falling asleep in class. Without the scholarship, I probably would have been a straight C student.

My GRE scores fortunately enabled me to attend both Johns Hopkins and Cornell for graduate studies, compensating for the fact that my overall GPA was not as high as it might have been had I not needed to work while I was an undergraduate.

So, I agree with Mr Bad's point there is a case to be made that some of those who not come from elite backgrounds might benefit from the opportunity to attend an elite school based on such a test.

Unfortunately, now there is so much coaching and retesting among children of the elites that it is probably more difficult for those who might have "analytic" skills so despised by Ivan to compete against the "coached".

And while everyone thinks that all those other tests of achievement are better, I have to say that "essays" and "interviews" and "portfolios" are no more objective than either the ACT or the SAT and "elites" can pay for tutoring for those just as easily as they can for tests.

This possibility was displayed in the graphs that everyone ignored in a NY Times article about the slight, but not statistically significant different between the proportion of boys and the proportion of girls accepted into the specialized high schools such as Stuyvesant and Bronx Science. The focus was on the girls. Meanwhile, what was ignored was the clearly significant difference in favor of girls being accepted into elite "screened" schools which used "essays" and "interviews" and "portfolios". They didn't break this down based on ethnicity, but given what I observed among my son's friends when he and they were applying to high school, I think that you would probably find that it was only the "right type" of boy that was accepted into the screened schools. And coming from an elite background certainly helped with all those extra "assessment" criteria.

Mar. 06 2014 12:57 PM
Michael Swart from Harlem, NY

As both a college instructor and a tutor in Harlem Public Schools, I see the dichotomy between the elite ivory tower education and the importance of good education and resources for high-needs learners.

Undoubtedly, the current format of the SAT caters to certain types of students who often are the beneficiaries of a secure and stable school and home environment while it discriminates against the young learners who deal with a multitude of risk factors (in addition to possible accompanying psychopathologies) in educational environments where for many, educators deliver a do-able curriculum in hopes that their students will earn their diploma.

Growing up the son of two parents who did not attend college, we did not have books in our house. It wasn't until I went to college and was exposed to literature and journaled research that I realized that reading is what exposes learners to the seemingly arcane vocabulary words often found on the SAT (I took it in 1995). It was then that I came to understand the value of the SAT as a indicator, at least to higher-ed institutions, of who was worldly aware of culture in literature and journalism as a proxy for precociousness.

If the NEW S.A.T. removes these questions and provides contextualized questions that more students will have the ability to successfully answer, how will the exam continue to differentiate between the different types of students entering post-secondary education? Can we expect the mean score per section to continue to be 400/500? If the mean scores rise, will it become a simple bellwether of the students that are ready for college? What will this mean for the S.A.T.'s use as a metric for colleges to identify different types of students? Will this force colleges to use the S.A.T. as a baseline indicator and in turn force admissions to formulate/focus on other ways to determine the true potentials of incoming students?

Two points in closing: (1) I find it particular that there was no mention during the interview that Cyndie Schmeiser was the former head of assessment for the company that produces the ACT (especially since Brian posed the question about the S.A.T.'s migration toward the ACT); (2) I applaud Kahn Academy for offering free SAT prep online. The division between those able to afford prep versus those that cannot has been ignored far too long.

Educators are excited about the new changes and the potential impact to open more opportunities to more students for going to college.

Thanks for a good interview.

Mar. 06 2014 12:56 PM
ivan obregon from manhattan

The ACT test has been much more relevant to what students actually study in class for the longest while the SAT has focused on how to trick and trip students just as long....

take the ACT test instead as it actually resembles what you do in school (and hence more of an achievement test) and not in some pompous ass's head about how hard they can make a test based on elitist "gotcha nonsense" and high-falluting "logical axioms" or abstract mathematical postulates and confuses that type of thinking as ...."intelligence" or "educated" or "prepared for college"....instead of just "prepped" or extraordinarily analytic if not.

Dumbing down the test to make it more real or democratic? The SAT test has already been the dumbest thing going except for people who don't teach....and the design of these elitist monstrosities to distort the meaning and purpose of an educational test that should reflect the content-curriculum of what an education should consist of and actually taught in school.....

Imagine that.....or maybe just actually nationally implement such an approach instead. E.D. Hirsch's Core Curriculum still makes sense.....

Mar. 06 2014 11:51 AM
Isidor Logan from manhattan

@jgarbuz - while there are many sharp students at the top schools, grades are awarded not on personal merit, but rather per a group norm. For many reasons (e.g to avoid whining that has serious consequences due to who is doing the whining - to keep proper revenue flow, to maintain school reputation. Individual distinction isn't measured by grades. And students start scheming accordingly, early in the process.. - in this case finding schools where the students agree not to disclose their grades. I think this is part of the dumbing down and inflation of a bubble of faux business smarts in this country. Yes, there are smart kids at the top schools and smart kids in other places. However, by removing objective standards in favor of pedigree, we don't give our own economy the best chance to be driven by the best minds or to know the measures that would allow us to improve.... look at all the tech companies screaming for more immigrants.

Mar. 06 2014 11:47 AM
Amy from Manhattan

James, I'd like to see the ability to know the reliability of Internet info & identify Internet scams tested--or at least taught!

Mar. 06 2014 11:47 AM
David from Brooklyn

Will the GRE also be revised along the same guidelines?

Mar. 06 2014 11:45 AM
Mr. Bad from NYC

The SAT used to matter. The SAT is basically an intelligence test and that gives kids who are intelligent but perhaps not the best students or who come from deprived backgrounds a chance to raise their chances of going to an elite school. The SAT should remain very challenging and colleges should simply emphasize to admissions that a low SAT score is no bar to success in college and that a great SAT score should mean something. The point of a college education should be to nurture the potential of intelligent persons not simply sell a degree to another sucker.

Mar. 06 2014 11:41 AM
Barb from NY

Oh, come on. SAT is a business, they were losing market share, so they're trying to fix that. That's all this is.

Mar. 06 2014 11:41 AM
Jessie Lydia Henshaw from Way uptown

What still gets left out is the crossover subject... between "liberal education" and "STEM" subjects. Liberal studies is about human culture. STEM is about math for controlling nature.

Nobody seems to connect them as the general study of the cultures of nature. The richness of natural forms is left out of the STEM discussion of what "silly humans" assume they can control, for example. That culture is part of nature is left out of liberal studies, like how the natural succession of developmental processes and their remarkably complex instabilities, are what every narrative and story line is in different ways built around.

Mar. 06 2014 11:41 AM
john A

This reminds me of posthumanism. The computers will handle all the details (the ones we will no longer be tested on), leaving us to live in the cloud making virtual currencies. Ug.
Onair: fewer tricks.
The ability to unwind a trick us absolutely a test of intelligence, something I had to face, clumsily when I "moved up" to working in a research lab.

Mar. 06 2014 11:40 AM
Maud Sachs from Upper Westside

Cyndie Schmeiser used "turgid" as an example of a "SAT word" that students would never hear again. Jon Stewart used it last night.

Mar. 06 2014 11:38 AM
Amy from Manhattan

But without the essay, the SAT test will just be the T test! (OK, that works better spoken out loud than written.)

Mar. 06 2014 11:37 AM
James from Bay Ridge

If it's about being more relevant, how will the new SAT test students computer/internet research/basic coding skills - things that will be needed in college and the jobs of the future?

Mar. 06 2014 11:36 AM

How much data that says the SAT is useless do we need!?!!?

Mar. 06 2014 11:36 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Already when I lived in Israel back in the 1980s, most US college degrees were eyed suspiciously by employers, unless they were from MIT, Stanford, Harvard or the other really tough schools. I suspect this continuous watering down of the SAT.

Mar. 06 2014 11:34 AM
B. from uws

It's really offensive that the ETS can turn students lives upside down when their business model isn't working. Less than 10 years ago, my daughter had to cope with the new SAT, with its faux essay and higher scores. Now, since the ACT is winning the standardized test race, ETS is changing the test again. Colleges, stop enabling this industry!

Mar. 06 2014 11:34 AM
Georgie from Ann Arbor

Turgid is not an obscure word. This All sounds like another move that will weaken the rigor of education.

Mar. 06 2014 11:32 AM
John A

Maybe the SAT staff was disheartened from having to read through "billions and billions" of typos and grammatical errors. This based on what I see in Blogs.

Mar. 06 2014 11:31 AM
Javier from Brooklyn

This is probably the cynical view but somebody has to read all of those essays. If you remove the essays the test simply needs to be fed into the computer and you don't need all the man-hours to read thousands of essays.

Mar. 06 2014 11:29 AM
Andy from Brooklyn

I completely agree with John Cinti's comment. I never took the SAT or the ACT. I went on to university. They made me take a couple of remedial math and writing courses but otherwise my courses we absolutely the same as other students. After graduating with a Bachelors I went on to complete my Masters. I now earn a great living and have received several awards. These college admissions exams are a waste of time and add a great deal of stress to a student's life

Mar. 06 2014 11:29 AM

Is the de-valuing of the essay cutting against the emphasis of the "Common Core" curriculum?

Mar. 06 2014 11:26 AM
John Cinti from Fairfield, CT

The SAT's are a complete waste of time. I was an art student in school, and have always been focused on creative subjects. The SAT's may have revealed I was not strong in math or science, but did nothing to show my strength in the arts. I own a successful business, I make a great salary, and enjoy wonderful freedom in my daily life. Parents, teach your children how to be successful in life through common sense education, and stop playing into the "organization" that is the SAT system.
Just my thoughts....
John C.

Mar. 06 2014 09:39 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.