College Board officials made waves yesterday when they announced the first major changes to the SAT since 2005.
The overhaul will bring scoring back to a 1,600-point scale, eliminate penalties for wrong answers, and make the essay section optional. Arcane vocabulary words will be replaced with ones people might actually use. The modifications have been described as "sweeping revisions" and a "fundamental rethinking."
But intelligence expert Douglas Detterman thinks they aren't a big deal.
"The changes are relatively minor," said Detterman, a professor emeritus at Case Western Reserve University and founder of the scientific journal Intelligence. "I don't think it will change much."
Detterman is concerned with the "psychometrics" of the SAT — the academic term for what the test measures and how it does that. In the case of the SAT, which is designed to measure general intelligence in the core areas of math and reading/writing, he says the newly announced changes should have little effect on what the test assesses.
So why do it? In recent years, the SAT has been criticized for being disconnected from the academic curriculum at most schools, and its effectiveness questioned. Many worry that the standardized assessment — once introduced as a great equalizer — has simply turned into a massive business that privileges the rich and disadvantages the poor. Detterman thinks the new changes have mostly been designed to bolster the SAT's public image.
For example, take the planned changes to vocabulary questions. The AP reported that the College Board plans to throw out words like "prevaricator" and "sagacious" in favor of words that are more likely to be used in school or the workplace, such as "synthesis" and "empirical." Detterman suspects this is being done mostly for "public relations."
"On vocabulary items I don't think it matters what kind of words are used," he said. "It's the difficulty of the words, and if you want to use words that are more related to business that's fine."
Then there's the decision to drop the essay. Detterman says this is not surprising, as the section is likely expensive and time consuming to grade. On top of that, a common critique of the SAT essay is that scoring standards are inconsistent and unreliable. According to an article in the New York Times Magazine, SAT coaches believe earning high marks can be as simple as using plenty of details (regardless of whether those details are accurate), writing long, and periodically inserting fancy-sounding words like "plethora."
The one change that Detterman does support from a psychometrics standpoint is eliminating the 0.25-point penalty for wrong guesses. The SAT is what's known as a "power test" — an assessment designed to get participants to answer as many questions correctly as possible. For that particular kind of test, Detterman says it doesn't make sense to penalize people for wrong guesses, thus deterring them from answering questions.
Finally, in response to the criticism that the SAT privileges the rich and hurts the poor and lower middle class, the College Board on Wednesday announced a new partnership with nonprofit learning service Khan Academy that will provide free SAT test prep materials. Will it matter? Again, Detterman says it may come down to image more than anything else. Data show that most prep courses are fairly ineffective at raising students' test scores, though some benefit can come from familiarity with the style of the test.
"The SAT is nothing more than an intelligence test. It's an intelligence test, and you can't really prepare for it," he says. "So I don't think that makes that much difference."
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