The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Examinations are formidable even to the best prepared, for the greatest fool may ask more than the wisest man can answer."... ...Charles Caleb Colton.

Commentary of the Day - September 22, 2002:  The New SAT is to Snow as Winter is to Arizona.  Guest commentary by Felice Prager.

In Arizona, we have four seasons: winter is warm, spring is hot, summer is deathly hot, and autumn (if you survive the hot summer) is still hot enough to fry fajitas on the hood of your SUV.  Knowing that, it shouldn't have surprised me when my son, who was working on French translations for school, asked, "What season of the year is it in October?"  Being an above average ninth grader, I was alarmed that he didn't know the seasons.  As he continued, however, it made more sense.  "It's hard to remember them because in Arizona, all the seasons seem the same.  It's not like where you grew up where all you had to do was look out the window to see if leaves changed color or snow fell to give you a hint."  This made me start to think that it might be subtle discrimination against children who live where the seasonal changes aren't obvious to include any reference to the seasons on standardized tests.  Perhaps when the New SAT arrives in 2005, this problem will be addressed along with the other changes the College Board is presently tackling.  I considered writing to them about it, but I figured with all the questions I have already sent to them since they announced the creation of the New SAT and all the work they have ahead of them transforming the SAT into the New SAT, they have enough to do.

I discovered the College Board's web site ( when my older son had to register for the SAT's a few years ago.  The site makes the process very easy.  You click this and you click that, add a social security number and credit card information, and you receive a confirmation in the mail a few days later.  You can register to take the test during one or more of the seven times a year it is given at the most convenient location.  If you're planning a family vacation to Disney World on one of the SAT testing dates, you don't have to change your reservations; you just register to take the test at the school closest to your hotel and party with Mickey when you're done.  The site also has an abundance of user friendly information about the college application process including help deciding upon the right college and information about financial aid.  Unlike when I was a high school student when we had to wait for what seemed like all winter (having taken the test in autumn) for the results, SAT results are now mailed to students within a few weeks of taking the test.  A student can even pay a service charge and view test results online even before they are mailed.  A printout is also available, for another small fee, which has the test questions, answers, explanations, and how the student answered each question.  The goal in this is to assist students who wish to take the test again and hopefully get a higher score.  When viewing the site's FAQ's, there doesn't seem to be a thing they missed.  They keep information current with press releases and informational pages about the SAT's history and plans for future changes.

For instance, the College Board web site has information about the New SAT that will be administered for the first time in March 2005.

(An aside: my seasonally-impaired son will be among those students who will be the first to take the New SAT.)

According to the College Board web site, there are three major changes planned for the New SAT.

The SAT Verbal Exam will become the SAT Critical Reading Exam which will no longer include analogies.  In their place, short reading sections will be added to existing long reading passages.  As it states on the web site, "While analogical reasoning is important, analogies are rarely taught in schools and these questions have become rather artificial."

I was considering writing to programs like the Word Masters Challenge, a national competition for students in grades 3-8 which encourages growth in vocabulary and verbal reasoning.  Over 4,500 school teams, from 50 states, participated last year.  According to, "unlike other language-arts contests, which emphasize punctuation and grammar, this competition addresses word comprehension and logical abilities such as those measured for high school students by the verbal SAT I."  Not anymore!

(An aside: When my seasonally-impaired son was in elementary school, many teachers used the Word Masters Challenge as a learning tool.  In fact, my son was one of only 35 students in the United States to earn a perfect score.  Oh well.  Adios Analogies.)

The New SAT will also have a new section called the SAT Writing Exam.  This section will contain multiple-choice grammar questions as well as a written essay.  The SAT Math Exam will be expanded to cover three years of high school math.  Instead of just covering concepts from Geometry and Algebra I, the new SAT Math Exam will add concepts from Algebra II.  These changes mark the tenth time in its 76 year history that the SAT exam has been modified.


1. The SAT exam has been modified ten times in its 76 year history.  If these changes were evenly spaced, how often have the tests been modified:
a) every 7.6 years
b) every leap year
c) every autumn
d) every year when there is a lunar eclipse

According to the College Board web site, "These latest changes are being made after several years of extensive consideration by educators and psychometricians at the College Board, in consultation with individual educators and groups of academics, guidance professionals and enrollment and admission officers that regularly advise the association.  In addition, the changes were robustly debated and voted for by the association's Board of Trustees on June 27, 2002."

(An aside: For those of you who, like me, don't know what a psychometrician is, I looked it up at  psychometrician: 1. A person who is skilled in the administration and interpretation of objective psychological tests.  2. A psychologist who devises, constructs, and standardizes psychometric tests.  It's a good thing psychometrician wasn't on the Very Old SAT's when I took them!)

In spite of their best efforts, I finished studying the College Board pages about the New SAT, and I was still filled with questions.  They provided an email address for comments and questions, so I took advantage of it.

What I wrote: "For students who will be the guinea pigs of the New SAT, how will the PSAT work?  Will it be worth taking it?  Won't it be counterproductive if the PSAT measures one thing and the new SAT measures another?  How are you accounting for this and how can a student prepare?  Isn't it a disadvantage for those students taking the new test?  With the old SAT, students had a means to practice and take classes and buy books to prepare for it.  Now there is nothing for dress rehearsal.  How is this being justified?  I'd appreciate answers.  In addition, some students take the test a few times.  If a student takes the test in spring of 2004, then fall of 2004, and then spring of 2005, how will colleges use this information?  After all, you are comparing apples and oranges.  This class (my son's age) will be at a terrible disadvantage.  Their teachers will not know how to prepare them for the test either.

The first prompt and professional reply I received was from an executive at the PSAT/NMSQT Programs at the College Board.  She reassured me that the PSAT would be altered to reflect and prepare students for the New SAT.  She said that the analogies will be removed, the new short passage questions will be added, and quantitative comparison items will be dropped.  She said that students taking the PSAT are too young for Algebra II (which is not necessarily true for students who are in accelerated math programs) so they will not include those few new math items.  However, they will continue to have higher difficulty items in geometry and algebra on the PSAT.

For me, a discouraging part of her reply was about the essay.  She said that on the PSAT, they would be offering an essay for in-school scoring with all the rubrics and support to enable teachers to both learn how these essays will be scored nationally and then to provide the scoring for their students.  She added that it was a good professional development exercise as well as practice for the students.  My interpretation of this is that the College Board will not be grading the essay on the PSAT; that will be left up to the teachers at the individual schools.  I've always been an opponent of grading something as subjective as writing (even with a rubric) and forcing a time element on writing assignments, so there wasn't much she could say to erase my anxiety here.  My handwriting is difficult to read and not unlike many students today, I write considerably better using a computer.  If I had to prepare a writing sample without a computer and with someone timing me, I'd have quite a difficult time preparing it in a testing environment.

The second response was from an employee at the SAT Program.  "As you probably are aware, our recommendations for long-term preparation for the SAT has always been that students should read critically, develop problem solving skills, and take challenging coursework….We will be conducting field trials for the new SAT questions this spring --- with students --- to make sure questions are of a difficulty levels appropriate to the population, to rate the difficulty level of each question (so that the math and verbal portions can be compared to the current SAT and to ensure that the questions are not biased against any subgroup.)"   She continued to say that they would be updating schools as to the competencies required in the fall of 2003 and prep materials would also be developed.  She closed by saying that graduates of 2006 may be required by universities to take the New SAT, that it will be up to the individual admissions office.  She said Admission Offices will be able to equate the math and verbal portions of the old SAT with the new SAT because the math, critical reading, and writing scores will still be scored on a 200-800 scale.

With that reply, some more of my lovely tresses turned gray, but I have a reputation of overreacting to change. I suppose the psychometricians will work very hard to make sure a 650 on the old SAT Verbal test will be equal to a 650 on the new SAT Verbal test.  I am still uncomfortable about the writing sample and I wonder how many seasons it will take their staff to read and rate the essays.  How many snow days will pass until the results are mailed, and how accurate is a test that requires subjective grading?

As my seasonally-impaired son said when asked by his school newspaper how he feels about the New SAT, "I feel intimidated like a frightened turtle."

©2002, Felice Prager
Felice Prager is a freelance writer who publishes WRITE FUNNY at

The IP comments:  Let's see.  The SAT is changed significantly about once every 7.6 years.  Given that these days it takes the average student five or more years to finish undergraduate work, that hardly gives our colleagues in the psychological disciplines enough time to determine if there is any correlation between a student's scores on the SAT and his or her performance in college.  Hmmmm!

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