American SAT college entrance test to get a revamp from March 2016

A tutor preparing an 11th grader for the SAT on March 6, 2014 in Pembroke Pines, Florida. -- PHOTO: AFP
A tutor preparing an 11th grader for the SAT on March 6, 2014 in Pembroke Pines, Florida. -- PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Getting into college in the United States will no longer hinge so much on a high-school student's grasp of arcane vocabulary or obtuse mathematical formulas.

Changes to the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) unveiled on Wednesday are intended to breathe new vigour into the 88-year-old college entrance exam at a time when some critics are challenging its value.

"The changes to the SAT will distinguish it from any current admission exam," said the College Board, the New York-based non-profit that oversees the test.

To take effect in March 2016, the revamped SAT will spare candidates the need to memorise words like "punctilious" or "lachrymose". Instead, they'll be expected to interpret more common "high-utility" words in the context in which they appear.

For example, they might be asked if "intense" - as in, "a more intense clustering of jobs... in a smaller number of bigger cities" - means emotional, concentrated (the correct answer), brilliant or determined.

Math and algebra questions will focus on solving real-life scenarios, such as figuring out from a numerical table which age group had the biggest turnout in percentage terms in the 2012 US presidential election.

"They're trying to make the test serve as a better measure of critical thinking skills," Mr Jonathan Burdick, vice-provost and dean of college admission at the University of Rochester in New York state, told AFP.

The SAT remains multiple choice, but there will be four choices rather than five, and no points lost for wrong answers. An essay portion, requiring students to analyze a given argument within 50 minutes, will become optional - though many universities prefer to see it completed.

The changes come as the SAT, taken by 1.66 million students in the United States and abroad last year, fends off its 55-year-old rival, the American College Testing (ACT) assessment, which claims 1.8 million test-takers.

Money is a factor.

The SAT, which is more common in the Northeast and Western states, costs US$51 a test, while fees for the ACT, taken mainly in the Midwest and South, start at US$36.50. Both tests cost more for those living abroad, but waivers are offered for children from lower-income households.

For those who can afford it, a US$4.5 billion "test prep" industry stands ready to tutor youngsters, either with after-school and weekend classes in strip malls or in one-on-one sessions that can cost as much as US$500 an hour.

Some educators, however, wonder aloud if the SAT is worthwhile.

"The SAT will remain a weak predictor of undergraduate success," said Mr Bob Schaeffer of FairTest, an advocacy group, in a statement upon release of the revamped test.

"The exam will still underpredict the performance of females, students whose home language is not English, and older applicants" while wealthy families that can afford tutoring will still enjoy an advantage, he said.

One study, published in February, looked at 123,000 students at 33 universities and found that a student's average grades during high school were as good if not better an indicator of success in college than a test score.

"My hope is that this study will be a first step in examining what happens when you admit tens of thousands of students without looking at their SAT scores," its lead author William Hiss told NPR public radio.

"And the answer is, if they have good high school grades, they're almost certainly going to be fine," said Mr Hiss, former dean of admissions at Bates College in Maine.

Out of the nearly 2,500 four-year public and private universities in the United States, more than 800 no longer use either the SAT or ACT to admit bachelor degree candidates, FairTest says.

"The SAT itself is not as centrally important to colleges or college-bound students as it used to be," Mr Burdick said. "And this change reflects - as much as anything - the Coke versus Pepsi-level fight between SAT and ACT for global market share."