A local web-based education company is at the center of number of major changes planned for the SAT.
The College Board, the organization responsible for the SAT, revealed plans earlier this month to overhaul the college entrance exam -- with the aim of ensuring students are assessed on actual knowledge, rather than their ability to memorize and regurgitate information, and that students from low-income families have access to the same kind of SAT tutoring as their wealthier peers.
Starting in 2016, the SAT will be returning to its former 1,600-point scale, the test's essay will become optional, and students will see fewer so-called "SAT words." These and other measures are being instituted in order that the test "focus on the few things that evidence show matter most for college and career readiness," according to the College Board's March 5 press release.
The press releases also announced an unprecedented partnership with Khan Academy, the Mountain View-based producer of educational YouTube videos and online tutorial exercises. The Khan partnership "directly confronts one of the greatest inequities around college entrance exams," the press release read -- "namely the culture and practice of high-priced test preparation."
Plans to retool the SAT were met with approval by Mountain View educators, as well as students from Mountain View High School.
"I'm very excited about the changes," said Barry Groves, superintendent of the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District.
Groves said he supports the planned SAT overhaul for a number of reasons. The new exams will be better aligned with the recently adopted Common Core State Standards, he said. Also, the new SAT will no longer penalize students for incorrect responses -- a practice the superintendent does not favor. Groves said he is in favor of eliminating "$10 words" and making the essay optional.
"I like the fact that the vocabulary will rely on the vocabulary used in college courses rather than esoteric words," Groves said. "I don't believe the writing assessment was a valid assessment of a student's ability to write. Many schools don't put much credence in the writing results."
Rosa Lutz, a junior at Mountain View High School who took the SAT for the first time on March 8, said she thinks the test should be rewritten. Lutz said she didn't see the value in being forced to write an essay on a topic she'd never considered before, and admitted that she had come into the test with a head full of historical quotes, prepared to make them fit into whatever topic she was asked about.
She was also weary of memorizing obscure words that she may never have the opportunity to use again. On her recent attempt at the SAT, Lutz said there were some words that were so foreign to her that she wasn't even able to eliminate wrong answers and had to guess.
Rationale for change
Groves' and Lutz's observations are not new. Critics have long charged that the SAT rewards those who understand standardized test-taking strategy, and that such strategy can be taught -- for a price -- in expensive tutorial centers, like the ones run by the Princeton Review.
In the March 5 release, David Coleman, president of the College Board, said that he was committed to making the SAT "more focused and useful, more clear and open than ever before."
Carly Lindauer, senior director of external communications for the College Board, said in an email that the changes to the SAT are intended to do just that.
"Our objective with the redesign is to make the exam useful by ensuring that everything students encounter when they take it is widely applicable to their work in college and career training opportunities," Lindauer wrote.
Marti McGuirk, a counselor at Mountain View High School, said she was pleased to hear about the College Board's partnership with Khan Academy.
"It seems super cool," McGuirk said.
Standardized testing has become an "equity issue," McGuirk said."Students who have the ability to access high-quality SAT preparation courses -- it certainly gives them a leg up."
According to Elizabeth Slavitt, content lead at Khan Academy, the College Board came up with the idea for the partnership -- contacting the Mountain View company a few months ago.
Slavitt said Khan Academy lesson makers will work with sample problems from future SAT exams, which, she said, has never been done before. "In a lot of ways this is really unprecedented," she said.
From there, Khan Academy will create videos and build interactive lesson plans based upon the materials it receives from the College Board. Currently, Khan Academy makes lesson modules it calls "missions," which allow students to work through concepts at their own pace, earning badges and rewards along the way.
Keeping in line with that model, Slavitt said, Khan Academy will create an "SAT mission."
Initially, Slavitt said, the SAT mission will focus mainly on the math portion of the exam. Khan Academy was started as a math tutoring tool and numbers are still the organization's strong suit, Slavitt explained. The plan is to eventually create a comprehensive SAT tutorial that covers reading and writing as well.
Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, said in the March 5 press release that he has high hopes for his organization's partnership with the College Board.
"For too long, there's been a well-known imbalance between students who could afford test-prep courses and those who couldn't," Khan said. "We're thrilled to collaborate closely with the College Board to level the playing field by making truly world-class test prep materials freely available to all students."
Will it work?
While most of the students and educators who talked to the Voice thought the Khan Academy's partnership with the College Board was a good thing, some remained skeptical about just how much the revamped SAT would change things in the long run.
Jay Gubbi, a junior who took the SAT this winter and plans to take it again in an effort to better his already high score, said he thinks no matter what changes are made to the SAT, many students will still approach the test as something to be gamed with test-taking strategy.
"Even the perfect system can be gamed," he said. "No matter how it's changed, I don't think it's going to be necessarily better or worse -- just different."
Mai Lien Nguyen, a college and career counselor at Mountain View High School, said she would love to see the playing field leveled for SAT test-takers, though she isn't sure that's possible.
"With anything that you have to learn, it's so much nicer to have a live person telling you, 'OK, well here's what you need to fix on this essay, and here's where we need to go,'" Nguyen said, acknowledging that those who can afford to take an SAT prep-course with a tutor will likely have an advantage -- even with the introduction of Khan Academy SAT tutorials. "I think there's probably not a single assessment that you can't tie to socioeconomic status in some way."