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5 ways the SAT has tried to reinvent itself

Janet Nguyen May 16, 2019
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Students taking a test in a classroom.
Chris Ryan/Getty Images

The College Board — the company behind every anxiety-inducing test you took in high school —  is shaking up the SAT yet again, this time with plans to introduce an “adversity score” that will take into account a student’s social and economic background.

The number will be based on 15 factors in three categories: the student’s neighborhood environment, family environment and high school environment.

In 2012, the ACT overtook the SAT as the top college entrance exam for the first time ever, and maintained that lead until the SAT took back the title last year. The College Board has entered into deals with state and school systems to offer students the ACT, which the Washington Post says was instrumental to its growth.

Back in 2016, the not-for-profit organization raked in about $942 million in revenue. The SAT costs $47.50 — $64.50 if you take it with an essay portion (however, fee waivers are available).

Right now, the SAT has two sections for a total of 1600 points: math and evidence-based reading and writing. But it’s undergone many, many changes over the years. Here’s a brief look at some of its redesigns.

1) A new writing section

For the 2005-06 academic year, the SAT included a new writing component, bumping up the total achievable score from 1600 to 2400. It included an essay portion and questions that tested grammar rules.

The move came after the president of the University of California  — one of the country’s largest university systems — proposed eliminating the test from its admissions unless a writing component was added.

The revamped test also removed analogies from its verbal section (renamed “critical reading”) and “quantitative comparisons” from its math section.

2) Goodbye, obscure vocabulary words

Two years after the ACT overtook the SAT as the top test, the College Board announced that it would trim the SAT by making the essay optional and replacing the vocabulary on the test with less obscure words.

“The SAT will focus on words that students will use consistently in college and beyond,” the College Board wrote, also noting that it “will no longer be vocabulary students may not have heard before and are likely not to hear again.”

You know, like “antediluvian” or “animadversion.”

3) The introduction of calculators

The SAT underwent some major changes back in 1994. They included non-multiple choice questions on the math section and the granting of permission to use your own calculator. Part of the rationale for the decisions was to reduce the time pressure of the test.

During this time, the College Board increased the number of questions in its verbal section based on passages — from 30% to 50% — so that it could “send a signal to schools about the importance of reading.”

4) A math-free SAT

Yes, there were actual periods when a major component of the SAT — math — wasn’t even a part of the exam.

The SAT removed math questions from tests administered in 1928 and 1929, and between 1936 and 1941.

The verbal component of tests from 1936 to 1946 tested your ability to identify antonyms, complete analogies and answer questions based on paragraph reading.

5) The modern SAT prototype

In 1930, the SAT was split into two sections, one measuring “verbal aptitude” and the other, “mathematical aptitude” — a division that largely continued until the introduction of the writing section in the 2005-06 academic year.

Having two separate scores allowed college admissions staff “to weight the scores differently depending on the type of college and the nature of the college curriculum,” according to a report from the College Board.

The SAT was first administered in 1926, when it initially had nine verbal subtests (including analogies, logical inference and paragraph reading) and two math subtests (number series and arithmetical problems). You had to answer 315 questions in 97 minutes and were scored on a 200-to-800-point scale.

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