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New SAT brings essay, scoring change

Attention, high school freshmen. If you’re planning to take the SAT in two years, you probably won’t need to memorize the definitions of words such as obsequious, propinquity, enervation or lachrymose.

But you will need to be alert to the several possible definitions of words such as “intense.” In a given passage, does it mean emotional, concentrated, brilliant or determined?

You might also face challenges related to historical documents, such as decoding President Abraham Lincoln’s multiple uses of the word “dedicate” in the Gettysburg Address.

This new method of assessing vocabulary, among the most prominent revisions to the SAT on display for the first time today, shows how the dreaded college admission test will change in early 2016. Once billed as a gauge of college “aptitude,” with roots in the controversial practice of testing people for their “intelligence quotient,” the SAT now is marketed as a measure of high school achievement.

The College Board, which oversees the SAT, said the exam will be more straightforward but will remain rigorous. Whether students will see it that way, especially those taking the current version this year and next, is another question.

“The word on the street with my kids, the ones I’m working with now, is, ‘Drat, they’re making the test easier. Why don’t I get that opportunity?’ ” said Ned Johnson, a test-preparation consultant to students in the Washington area. “That’s the perception.”

The revisions, announced in broad terms in March, are fleshed out in detail today with the College Board’s release of draft sample questions and a new framework for the 88-year-old test.

They come as the SAT has been losing market share to the rival ACT, a trend especially striking after the College Board added a required essay to the SAT in 2005.

The number of students taking the SAT declined in 29 states from 2006 to 2013, a Washington Post analysis found, while the number taking the ACT fell in just three states.

The ACT, launched in 1959, has long described itself as an achievement test tied to the nation’s high school curriculum.

The SAT remains the leading admission test in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, as well as in many states in the Northeast and on the West Coast. But the ACT, which added an optional essay in 2005 but otherwise has been largely unchanged for the past 25 years, has boomed in many SAT strongholds and is now more widely used nationwide.

On the new SAT, the essay will be optional, the maximum score will return to 1600 instead of the current 2400, and the focus will be on analytical thinking in reading, writing and mathematics.

The College Board said the revisions are part of a campaign to widen access to higher education.

There are two major changes to the multiple-choice format of the SAT. The test will list four possible answers to each question instead of five.

And there no longer will be a scoring deduction for incorrect responses, which the College Board said would encourage students “to give the best answer they have for every question without fear of being penalized for making their best effort.”