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The standardized test that has been giving American teenagers nightmares since the 1920s is getting a makeover. Today, the College Board offered new details of changes to the SAT. Among the biggest shifts: gone are the days of memorizing obscure vocabulary words. Cory Turner, who's with NPR's education team, has been poring over the differences and he has this report.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: First, a warning. If you're in high school and set to take the SAT next year, don't burn those vocabulary flashcards. These changes don't kick in until spring 2016. Now, before we get to more of the what's changing, let's give the College Board a second to explain the why. Here's president David Coleman, speaking last month in Texas.
DAVID COLEMAN: It is time for an admissions assessment that makes it clear that the road to success is not last-minute tricks or cramming but the learning students do over years each day.
TURNER: In other words, a test that measures years worth of classroom study instead of the hours a student spent in a test prep class. So now, the what. The new SAT will have three sections: evidence-based reading and writing, math and an essay. But here's another big change...
BOB ALEXANDER: The essay is becoming optional.
TURNER: Bob Alexander is president of MaxTheTest.com. He's spent years helping students prep for standardized test. This optional essay, he says, brings the SAT closer in line to its surging rival, the ACT. America's teenagers will also be glad to hear multiple choice questions will have four possible answers now instead of five and test takers will no longer be penalized for wrong answers. The new math section, with 57 questions in 80 minutes, will prohibit calculators for some parts and double down on what the College Board calls the heart of algebra - linear equations and functions.
And one last headline for SAT purists, the College Board is going back to the old top composite score of 1,600. But those changes really just scratch the surface. One of the deepest differences, according to David Coleman of the College Board, is that questions will stick more closely than ever to provided reading passages. And students will have to back up everything they do.
COLEMAN: Because whenever a question really matters - in college, in career, or in life - the crucial next step is to support your answer with evidence.
TURNER: Here's an example. Remember we said no more obscure vocabulary? Well, instead, you might get a question about the word dedicate. Not so tough, right? But to answer, you'd have to read Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in which a form of dedicate appears half a dozen times and its meaning changes. So the new SAT might ask how dedicated in paragraph one compares in meaning and tone to, say, the dedicate in paragraph three.
ALEXANDER: I don't think it's going to affect us at all, other than having to explain to the kids the new formats.
TURNER: Bob Alexander of MaxTheTest.com isn't opposed to the changes. He's just not convinced they're changes.
ALEXANDER: I took the test in 1963. The test was then a test about analyzing what the author said.
TURNER: Bill Hiss is also a skeptic, not of these new changes but of the whole idea, he says, of the SAT as a predictor of success in college. He's retired dean of admissions at Bates College and led a study released just last month of colleges and universities that don't require an SAT score. He found that students who chose not to submit their test scores did just as well in college as those who did.
BILL HISS: To think you're going to design any single standardized test which will capture human promise for higher education is simply a trip up a blind alley.
TURNER: Instead, Hiss says, high school GPA is a far better predictor of college success. But until the nation's colleges agree with him, teenagers out there, you better dedicate yourselves to the proposition that the SAT is here to stay. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington.
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