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New reading-heavy SAT raises ELL concerns

Students can use a free Khan Academy test prep program to better prepare for the redesigned SAT.
Students can use a free Khan Academy test prep program to better prepare for the redesigned SAT.

The redesigned SAT seeks to expand opportunities for all students to go to college—but its focus on reading comprehension may make the exam more difficult for English-language learners and low-income students.

The SAT updates were announced two years ago, and first rolled out in March. The new test aligns with the Common Core, and asks students to analyze lengthy reading passages rather than work through the stodgy vocabulary sections of the past. This focus on comprehension extends to the math section, which will cover fewer concepts but test a deeper level of knowledge, says Cyndie Schmeiser, the College Board’s chief of assessment. Also, the essay section is now optional.

“The new SAT is an achievement test focused on what research says is most important for college readiness,” Schmeiser says. “These are exactly the skills teachers are teaching every day in the classroom.”

Wordiness worries

But some critics worry the increased focus on reading comprehension will only measure—rather than close—the achievement gap between wealthy and low-income students.

Representatives from Kaplan Test Prep and other national SAT prep providers expressed concern that the wordiness of the math problems would hurt students exposed to fewer rich texts at home, especially those from immigrant backgrounds, according to published accounts.

“What we see measured in standardized test scores is who has opportunity and who doesn’t,” says Flynn Ross, associate professor of teacher education at the University of Southern Maine. “The SAT is not an aptitude test, but an achievement test.”

College Board provides all students with free, online SAT prep through Khan Academy. It also waives college application fees and added more than $180 million in scholarship opportunities for low-income and minority students this year.

“These resources are intended to help [disadvantaged] students,” Schmeiser says. The new test includes fewer questions and fewer words in general. “We were mindful of not adding verbal load to the test, and keeping words to a minimum.”

The SAT was created in the 1920s, and the content was last modified in 2005. At that time, a separate essay section was added, raising the total possible points a student could achieve to 2400 from 1600. The new exam returns to the 1600 scale, with a separate score for the optional essay. Points are no longer deducted for incorrect answers.

Several past studies argue that the 2005 version of the SAT did not accurately predict a student’s potential. A preliminary College Board study of the redesigned test showed a positive relationship between SAT scores and college grades. The company will conduct a major study of the 2017-18 freshman class to determine how well test scores predict college achievement.