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March 03, 2016

Katerina Maylock, with Capital Educators, teaches a college test preparation class at Holton Arms School in Bethesda, Maryland. A completely revamped version of the SAT college entrance exam debuts this week. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

This week – for the first time – hundreds of thousands of high school students are taking a new version of the SAT college entrance exam. The redesigned test claims to be a better measurement of whether students are prepared for college. At the same time, the list of colleges that don’t require applicants to submit SAT scores is growing.

Gone are those two-dollar words that nobody uses anymore - words like “phlegmatic” and “lachrymose.” But The Big Test is still here, and so are the sweaty palms for students like John DeSimone, 17, a junior at Revere High School, in Revere, Mass.

“I was panicking last night, worrying, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to do on this test?’” DiSimone said shortly after taking the SAT earlier this week.

He noted differences in the new test. Unlike on the old test the essay part is now optional. Students are tested on their ability to read text and answer questions about it.

With these and other changes, The College Board, the non-profit that produces the SAT, is trying to stay relevant to the new content being taught under the Common Core State standards.

Revere High junior Samantha Woodman, 17, has taken both the old and the new test.

“I felt [the old SAT] was a lot harder than the second one,” Woodman said. “I felt like you needed to know a lot more vocabulary for the first one.”

The College Board says the new test should better predict whether Woodman and her classmates are ready to handle college material.

“I do think the SAT is a good predictor of performance - at least first year of college,” said Henry Braun, an education professor at Boston College, who also serves as an adviser to The College Board.

“I think the old SAT – what we can now call it the old SAT – was a pretty good predictor but it lacked what we call ‘face validity’,” Braun explained. “Some of the problems that it comprised didn’t seem related to what students were learning in high school.”

The SAT is changing, Braun says, to match high school curriculum better. By keeping the test to material learned in class, the hope is to level the playing field between low-income, high-achieving students and their more affluent peers who can afford outside test-prep courses.

Related: SAT Changes Shake Up Test-Prep Industry

While The Big Test undergoes big changes, more and more colleges say it’s not a useful indicator of how kids will perform.

“We found that the standardized tests were not a strong predictor of outcomes for students,” said Andrew Flagel, vice-president of enrollment at Brandeis University.

Brandeis is among some 200 top-tier four-year public and private schools with test-optional or test-flexible policies. Instead, Brandeis looks at grade point averages and examples of student writing.

“The standardized tests have gained in the American view this iconic value where folks believe that they have some intrinsic role in the admissions process,” Flagel said. “The data doesn’t support that. It’s really about the students’ academic records and the courses that they’ve taken and how they’ve performed in those courses.”

Ever since Brandeis went test-optional two years ago, Flagel says the university has attracted more diverse applicants: the number of applications from under-represented students of color has increased by about 35 percent from 1,290 in 2013 to 1,996 in 2015. Flagel added that many “are first-generation.”

And Brandeis isn’t alone. College of Holy Cross, Smith College, and Wesleyan University have all dropped their testing requirements.

“We see both a growth in numbers and in breadth for the test-optional movement in New England and nationally,” said Bob Schaeffer, a public education director at Fair Test, an anti-standardized testing organization.

Related: What schools in Massachusetts don't require the SAT or ACT?

One reason that colleges are dropping the test, he says, is that they want to open their gates to low-income, minority and second-language students who otherwise wouldn’t go to four-year colleges.

But the College Board and other critics suggest schools might be pulling a bait and switch with the new policy: seem more open to attract diverse applicants but not admit them; the result is a higher application rate and more selective status for the college. But Schaeffer says it’s rare that administrators are so conniving.

“They really want to fulfill the missions of their institutions by opening the doors to kids whose test scores had served as a bar to access,” Schaeffer said.

Whatever their motivation, more and more colleges say a student’s academic record is a far better predictor of college success than filling in bubbles for three hours on a Saturday morning.

You can see a searchable database of schools that have gone test-optional here.

Earlier: A New Kind Of College Ranking 

This story was produced by WGBH’s On Campus, a public radio reporting initiative focused on higher education, and by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Brandeis, Holy Cross, SAT new business models, The College Board, new business models, increasing access and success

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