ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
This weekend, college hopefuls will line up for the last time to take the SAT. At least, the current version of the college entrance exam. It's gotten a serious makeover, and the new test will roll out in March. From the NPR Ed team, Cory Turner reports.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Let's blow the dust off the very first multiple choice SAT from 1926. Here's a dramatic reading of one question by my colleague, Claudio Sanchez.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Which of the three following words are most closely related - chops, liver, round, fore-quarter, rump, sirloin?
TURNER: That's likely to stump at least a few more students today than it did then back when more kids grew up on farms and knew their cuts of beef. Clearly, tests need to adapt, and the SAT hasn't changed much in a decade. Cyndie Schmeiser, the chief of assessment at the College Board, which runs the test, says it was time to stop doing things like this...
CINDY SCHMEISER: We would ask students the definitions of words that perhaps they crammed for the night before the test but may not use.
TURNER: The new test, she says, will include vocabulary, but within a reading passage - less cramming, more context. And that's not the only change.
SCHMEISER: A second is using evidence in a passage to support their answers.
TURNER: The College Board hopes the redesign will capture a student's college and career readiness. If those words sound familiar it's because they've become a refrain for advocates of the Common Core learning standards, which most states now use. The rival ACT has been surging in recent years in part because it adapted much earlier to the Core. Now the SAT is playing catch-up, and here's where things get interesting.
MICHELLE EKSTROM: I think the conversation is really heating up in states.
TURNER: Michelle Ekstrom works on education issues for the National Conference of State Legislatures. She says, for years, the federal government has required states to test high school students at least once in math and reading and then report the results. Those tests used to be state specific because standards used to be state specific. But now most states are using Common Core. With the two big college entrance exams claiming to be in sync with the Core too, states are wondering, do our students, especially our 11th-graders, really need to take multiple tests anymore? Is the SAT or ACT good enough?
EKSTROM: That is something that legislators are diving into deeply - whether they are an adequate substitute for those other assessments that they had in place and if they will do both.
TURNER: Ekstrom says the idea of killing two birds with one test is appealing to lawmakers especially in states that saw anti-testing protests last year.
EKSTROM: Of course, the amount of testing is a huge issue.
TURNER: At least half a dozen states have already gotten permission to use the SAT or ACT as an official high school assessment, and that's welcome news for students in, say, Connecticut who will spend less time testing as a result. States also hope it will encourage more students to apply to college. The irony, though, is that as states embrace these college entrance exams in new and powerful ways, many colleges are doing the opposite. Just this week, the Harvard Graduate School of Education released a report calling on admissions offices to go test optional and to pay more attention to a student's, quote, "concern for others and the common good." Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington.
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