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SAT reset puts focus back into classroom

The College Board has put future test-takers – and their high-priced tutors – on notice: Studying in school may soon be at least as important as prepping for the SAT.

The board on Wednesday announced changes to the test, given in some form since 1901, that will make it more accessible and, not incidentally, harder to game. If it succeeds, the new SAT could reduce the influence of the multibillion-dollar test-preparation industry, which warps educational priorities and helps exacerbate educational inequality.

The SAT, taken by some 1.66 million students in the high school class of 2013, currently comprises three sections: critical reading, mathematics and writing, which includes an essay. The essay will now be optional and will require students to analyze a passage of text rather than answer an open-ended question, so pre-packaged – and potentially false – examples are no longer as relevant. Part of the math portion will forbid calculators, so say goodbye to some of those tricks on your TI-89 Titanium graphing calculator. And students will no longer be penalized for incorrect answers, so cancel those test-prep strategy sessions on whether to fill in that bubble at all.

The new exam, scheduled to be ready in two years, will now align its focus with what is taught in school – in some ways becoming closer to the ACT, which more students took in 2012 than the SAT. The new test will include data texts drawn from science, social studies and history; data analysis; and will require students to back up answers with evidence. Add to this a partnership, also announced Wednesday, with Khan Academy to provide free test-prep materials for the SAT – adaptive software, dashboards, feedback – and there are probably a lot of (alert: SAT word) melancholy tutors right now.

Of course, the College Board cannot erase the test-prep industry in one fell swoop. Change will still bring (alert: another SAT word) trepidation, something a professional tutor will happily accept an hourly fee to (OK, last SAT word) assuage. While the vocabulary test’s move from obscure words to useful ones is welcome, rest assured that the test-prep industry will respond with new websites and flashcards. And wouldn’t it be nice to have an “expert” offer advice and guide you through Khan Academy’s materials?

Still, the changes to the SAT – in conjunction with other efforts, including college application fee waivers – are seemingly part of a larger, praiseworthy shift in focus by the College Board from expanding revenue to expanding accessibility.

Indeed, the Khan Academy partnership could well cost the College Board, which itself sells test-prep materials. As College Board President David Coleman, who helped design the Common Core standards before arriving at the College Board in October 2012, noted in a media briefing, the challenge the board faces is not so much competition in the testing world as it is the effects of poverty.

Exactly what an improved standardized test can do to address poverty is the kind of question a reasonably intelligent high school student could tackle in an essay. All the same, the changes are worthwhile. If they can help improve educational equality and increase social mobility even a little bit, well, that is surely worth the loss of a few eccentric vocabulary words.