Commentary: The SAT adapts to modern times

The high school experience includes several rites of passage for students: getting a driver's license, going out on a first date and taking the SAT. Now the SAT journey has just gotten a little smoother.

The College Board, the organization behind the SAT as well as the Advanced Placement exams, recently announced major changes to the most feared test a teenager has to take: no more mandatory essay, no more penalties for wrong answers, no more difficult vocabulary. In other words, the kinder, gentler SAT coming in 2016 resembles more the ACT, the SAT's closest testing competitor.

The last major change to the high-stakes SAT exam came in 2005 when an essay component was added to the math and verbal sections, each component worth a possible 800 points for a grand total of 2,400. Now, a perfect score reverts back to the Holy Grail number of 1,600.

Mention the acronym SAT to any grown-up and see it send shivers down the spine. After all, an SAT score is a major part of one's college application.

I had to go to a local community college to take the three-hour SAT, so if I wasn't nervous enough about a test I had only heard about and never seen, I had additional anxiety about navigating my way to the library on a campus I had never visited. Since I was the first in my family going to college, I had no older sibling or parent lessening my fears of what to expect.

Back then, few kids took SAT prep classes, and fewer took the SAT multiple times. It was a one-shot deal. You scored high, and your future was set. You scored low, and you might as well apply to the community college before exiting the campus. And the wait for the scores to arrive in the mail was interminable.

In my case, the less-than-stellar results did not negatively affect me, since I was accepted into UCLA. However, that was a time when a 3.6 grade point average was also decent enough to get into a good college. Today, with weighted grades, a student would need a 4.6 GPA.

In addition to competing against the ACT, the College Board is combating the private companies that charge hundreds of dollars for SAT test-preparation courses. Trying to minimize their affect, the College Board is partnering with Khan Academy, a free video-tutoring website, to provide test preparation materials.

Deborah Ellinger, chief executive of The Princeton Review, one of the leading test preparation companies, offered this rebuke of the revamped SAT in a news release: "We've never seen a test that wasn't coachable, [and] the College Board has never designed a test that we couldn't help students crack."

So that's what all this is about — figuring a way to beat the test.

The best strategy for parents and teens is to keep in mind that many colleges use a variety of factors in assessing a freshman applicant, including grade point average, rigor of course work and extracurricular involvement.

However, give the College Board credit for realizing its diminishing role in the standardized test marketplace by retooling the SAT to more accurately reflect what a student should know.

The origins of the SAT centered on leveling the playing field so that those gaining entrance to college were not just the rich and privileged but those of merit as well. Over a century later, the folks running the SAT are still trying to reach that goal.

BRIAN CROSBY is a teacher in Los Angeles County and the author of "Smart Kids, Bad Schools and The $100,000 Teacher." He can be reached at

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