Creators of the SAT exam announced plans Wednesday to toughen the test in the face of stagnant national scores, planning to challenge students to provide more analysis, cite evidence and even turn in their calculators before answering some math questions.
The new version will be first administered in 2016.
"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 challenging learning students do every day," said David Coleman, president of the non-profit College Board, which produces the SAT, formerly known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test.
The SAT is a rite of passage for high school students seeking admission to college. Many – but not all – universities require SAT scores as part of the admissions process.
About 1.6 million students take the exam each year, and only 43% of the high school class of 2013 scored high enough to succeed in college, according to a College Board analysis. U.S. students have fallen behind their counterparts in many other developed nations in test results, prompting concerns that the U.S. is insufficiently preparing young people for competing in a global economy.
The SAT last underwent a redesign in 2005.
The other major college admissions exam for American students is the ACT, delivered to nearly 1.7 million each year. That test was recently changed and will be made available digitally in 2015, allowing students to see their results in minutes.
The freshly overhauled SAT test includes a more challenging essay assignment scored on the strength of analysis as well as writing. But the score for it will not be part of the final overall test result. Colleges can choose whether to consider it.
As a result of this change, the top score for the new SAT will drop from 2400 to 1600.
Test scoring also was changed, no longer deducting for an incorrect answer. Points are only added for correct answers.
Carol Jago, a high school teacher in Santa Monica, Calif., and past president of the National Council of Teachers of English, hailed the redesign as a better way to test whether students are prepared for the demands of college curriculums.
"I think it's more authentic," she said, "by insisting that a student not only get a right answer, but demonstrate how they get a right answer."
While the scope of the exam has been narrowed in areas such as math and vocabulary, what remains requires more demanding problem-solving – what Coleman described in remarks released Wednesday as "doing a few things very well."
In analyzing reading passages in the exam, students must cite specific passages from extracts of well-known writings to support answers, something not necessary in the current version.
The new test will include science, history or social studies source documents that students will be required to analyze or draw citations from to support answers.
"We are not interested in students just picking an answer, but justifying the answer," Coleman said.
Cited works included in the SAT for students to evaluate will hopefully be more familiar than documents included in current SATs, the College Board said. The new version will draw from milestone documents such as the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights, or crucial speeches such as the Gettysburg Address or Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream."
Coleman promised that the vocabulary requirements would be pared down to avoid the current version's tendency to ask about "a word you have not heard before and are not likely to hear again." Vocabulary included in the revised exam will be words more often used and words that also have more complex, multiple meanings.
The math section also is being narrowed to what Coleman described as three core areas: understanding how to use ratios, percentages and proportions; linear equations under the heading "Heart of Algebra"; and a section devoted to more complex equations or functions related to calculus.