New SAT, Old Problems

On a dreary Saturday morning, a proctor opens a gymnasium door. The warm buzz of fluorescent lights, and an unsightly sea of desks greet her. After a few minutes, sharp minds and sharpened pencils file in. An air of anxiety and adrenaline settles over the improvised classroom. As students squeeze into their seats, the proctor distributes test booklets. For some high schoolers, this will be their inauguration into the age-old tradition of filling in multiple-choice bubbles, performing mathematical acrobatics, and maintaining composure (or not).

Last Saturday, the College Board debuted the new SAT. In addition to a revamped format, the SAT introduced some critical changes: the essay portion is now optional; students are no longer penalized for guessing; and, in a radical move, the otiose vocabulary section has been replaced with contextual assessments of students’ language mastery.

At Get Schooled, we were curious about our students’ reactions to the new SAT. With over 750,000 student members, our loyal userbase continually reminds us of their needs. To gain more information about our students’ SAT experience, we surveyed our junior class about their preparation strategies and understanding of the SAT. More than 1,000 juniors answered our survey, representing Get Schooled’s diverse userbase, of which 15% were Asian, 16% were African American, 43% were Latino, and 24% were Caucasian.

Our biggest finding? Despite the growing concern about test preparation anxiety — or maybe because of it — the average junior is not studying for the SAT. In fact, 76% of respondents admitted to not studying. This finding crosses all races and ethnicities — most students are simply not preparing for the test. The biggest predictor of respondents’ pre-SAT study habits is whether or not a parent or family member has previously taken the SAT. Of those who do study, fewer than half report getting any formal assistance.

Additionally, it seems math trips up most students. Out of the SAT’s categories, 46% of the juniors felt most unprepared for the math section. Undoubtedly, these two findings are not mutually-exclusive. Most students wished they had brushed up on math formulas they learned in previous years. Some complained that they had not “seen this math since 8th grade.”

And how about the SAT’s revamped format? Because this was the first time most of the students had taken the test, they took the new format in stride. Many students enjoyed that they could guess stress-free. “If I got the answer to a question wrong, I wouldn’t have points docked off, compared to years past,” one student wrote, referring to the SAT’s recent removal of their penalty for wrong answers. Many thought that the new SAT’s vocabulary section made more sense, the consensus being that “the vocabulary tested is not as ambiguous as [before].”

In retrospect, many students were unsure if they had taken the correct approach in preparing for the SAT. When asked for one piece of advice for younger students preparing for the SAT, over 90% of the group answered, “STUDY, STUDY & STUDDDDYYYY!!!!”

And these students have a point. As the new SAT is more aligned with what is actually being taught in schools, studying and brushing off dusty skills ensures your test score reflects your knowledge base. Most students, however, are either not studying or are navigating test prep on their own. Get Schooled has various programs online available for test-taking prep, like quizzes, articles, and fee-waiver information. Get Schooled also operates a text line, 33–55–77, to which students can send their questions about the college admissions process, including questions pertaining to the new SAT.

The CollegeBoard, in conjunction with the Khan Academy, has released a curriculum online for students to access for free. On the website, students can experience the SAT first-hand without having to pay for classes, texts, or practice tests. Students have access to over 1,000 questions; four full-length practice tests; eight diagnostic quizzes; and instant feedback for assessing students’ progress.

Yet, the vast majority of students are not preparing at all — even with access to free resources. If this is true, what is the purpose of college admissions committees assessing students according to their standardized test scores? To identify those students who do study with outside assistance, and to discriminate against those who do not?

If the SAT is to live up to its promise of predicting future college success, there is still much work to be done in terms of leveling the playing field, conveying information to students about study aids available online and encouraging students to actually use them.

By Daylee Baker and Matthew Pritchard