Maybe students are smarter and more prepared for the new exam than their predecessors. But chances are the upward score drift is a product of the test—not the test takers. As in the past, each section of the SAT is scored from 200 to 800. The average combined score on the old, three-section test was right around 1500; that would indicate that the average score would be about a 1000 on the new, two-section test. But the new average is actually close to 1090. according to the data released by the College Board, which administers the SAT.

So, has the new test been made easier? Or has the revamped exam, which is supposed to be more closely aligned with real school work, created greater opportunities for students to shine?

Some testing experts suggest that these questions overlook the design and intent of standardized tests and the role difficulty plays in them. It is not just that difficulty lies in the eye of the beholder. It’s also that tests like the SAT will always seem hard to most students: If they were generally easy, standardized assessments would lose much of their value to highly selective colleges that use them to distinguish among applicants.

Most standardized tests are designed so that the number of examinees who answer a given question correctly averages around 60 percent. If 90 percent of students get a question right then nine out of 10 of them are indistinguishable. Such a question does little to distinguish their skills. Tests need to be difficult, but there is no value, either, in making them so difficult that nine out of 10 students are getting a question wrong.

Even when the content on a particular test is harder, the job of a test-maker is to make sure that the ultimate average score is the same regardless of the test. Testing companies, like College Board and ACT, have entire departments devoted to “equating,” the process of ensuring that it doesn’t matter whether you take the test in one month or another. Say, on the old test, if you got a 90 percent, that might get you a 1500. There are dozens of people whose job it is to make sure that, if you got an 80 percent on the new test, you still get a 1500.

The new SAT is different in many ways from the old model. To name just a few, the questions have four rather than five answer choices, there are fewer math concepts covered, and hard vocabulary is no longer directly tested. Comparing the two tests is like comparing apples to oranges. Instead, College Board has come up with calculations that allow colleges to compare scores on the new SAT to those on the old one. Its research has found, for instance, that a 730 on the new test’s math section is equivalent to a 700 on the old. The College Board is strongly encouraging admissions officers to use these formulas to compare applicants who took different tests, rather than look at percentiles.

The higher average scores and the overall rise in the performance percentiles on both the math and reading section of the new SAT have led some critics to speculate that the College Board may be intentionally inflating scores to attract more students. In 2012, the ACT became the most popular college-admissions test in the country. Many of the changes the College Board had made to the test appear to be designed to make the SAT more attractive to students, states, and school districts, which are increasingly paying for students to take the exam during the school day. At Damian SAT ACT Prep we treat equally the SAT and the ACT and consider the coaching of our students from the perspective of our Diagnostic Test.

There are, however, likely valid reasons to explain why the percentiles have floated upward. Students are no longer penalized for picking a wrong answer, for example; they also have more time to answer each question on the test. These factors led to fewer people getting lower scores, thus pushing the average up.

The question of difficulty on the SAT matters a great deal to the College Board. In a recent appearance in Boston, its president and CEO, David Coleman, cited the preponderance of questions that looked nothing like the work students do in school as a key reason the SAT was so difficult. Think “logic puzzles” on the math section and arcane vocabulary on the reading one—all of which lent themselves to test-prep techniques. “The new SAT,” Coleman declared, “is utterly unsurprising. It is again and again the work you see in class.”

On the current SAT, students can choose to write the optional essay at the end or to simply complete the four mandatory sections. Many or perhaps even all students who opted out of the essay had to complete an extra, 20-minute section, presumably what is known as an experimental section, which tests new questions and has no impact on scores. ACT for its part is telling students on those occasions when it uses an experimental section. We at Damian SAT ACT Prep we encourage students to take the optional essay in order to be prepared for the final application packages.

Perhaps the best question for high-school students is not whether the new SAT is more difficult than its predecessor or the ACT. Nor is it how competitive they are according to the percentile reports. Rather, maybe it’s whether, even with these difficulties, anything has really changed in the way students should think about the exam.


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