Most students who took the new SAT in North America in March liked this first revision of the exam in ten years. Among other things, it got rid of unpronounceable vocabulary words and no longer punished test takers for wrong answers.
But how will this revised college entrance exam play in Asia? Students in Asia will get their first look at the long-awaited standardized test on May 7 when it’s given at international sites. With this first revision since 2005, the recast SAT focuses less on critical reasoning skills, as in the past, and more on what students learn in school.
This widely-used standardized test, taken by thousands of students in Asia each year who hope to get into U.S. colleges, also “appears to test skills that students will actually use in college and beyond,” says The Edge, an educational consulting and test preparation firm in Hong Kong.
Yet the new SAT still presents challenges, and not just for students who didn’t go to U.S. high schools. The Edge says the vocabulary you’re asked to know may be more practical, but the reading section “is considerably more difficult” as it asks test takers to find evidence for answers within the questions.
But here’s what some parents and students may find hard to believe: These views – and actual portions of the new test – are circulating in the U.S. and overseas despite heightened security efforts by the College Board, which administers the SAT, to keep its recent March test under wraps.
The Edge studied questions from the revised March 5 U.S. exam pieced together by students who took it, and who shared what they knew with one another via the Internet, says Duc Luu, The Edge’s CEO. This occurred even though the College Board had transferred thousands of suspected test prep professionals and others deemed high security risks from the March to the May test. While Luu applauds the College Board’s latest stab at security, he says the entire March test is still available to those who know where to look. “There are channels online that are constantly shifting that will give you access” to test materials, Luu says.
The circulating questions and answers are only an issue if the same questions are repeated on a later test date, as has been past practice. When the College Board learns students have been exposed to test materials, it has been known to cancel exams. But the problem persists. “The correct solution is not to repeat,” Luu says. Only then will a crowd-sourced version of the test give students the “advantage of getting to know the questions better – not actually doing that exact paper,” he says.
In response, the College Board said it has “taken and will continue to take a number of actions…to identify and minimize” the risk of individuals and organizations that try to steal and profit from standardized tests. The non-profit also noted that it sent 18 take-down notices to various social media and community discussion websites within the past year.
How is the New Test Different?
Quite apart from the security leaks, how has the content of the test changed? In a report distributed to the media and to clients, The Edge details examples of questions on the revised SAT’s reading, writing and language and optional essay sections. The challenge for international students in the writing and language section, for instance, “is that they will no longer be able to simply memorize a small set of grammar rules and apply them mechanically.”
For international students, there are two big concerns with the revised SAT, says Mandee Adler, founder and principal of International College Counselors. First, a lot of material on the revised exam is related to U.S. historical documents. “If you haven’t read the Declaration of Independence or know about Martin Luther King, you will be at a disadvantage,” Adler says. Second, the exam has more word problems related to math as well as reading comprehension, she says.
The College Board says that students don’t need previous knowledge of U.S. history and founding documents to analyze them on the exam. But Kat Cohen, CEO and founder of IvyWise, a New York consulting firm, says, “there’s a chance the document could contain antiquated words, language and syntax, which could prove challenging for students whose second language is English.”
Another big change in the new test is that the essay is optional. But it’s unclear whether colleges will consider the essay – always a hurdle for non-native speakers – to be optional, making it mandatory for most students at least for now. But Adler says colleges typically don’t hold international students to the same standard as American students.
The College Board says it surveyed more than 8,000 students who took the March exam in the U.S., and found that 71% agreed the test reflected what they knew. By a six-to-one margin, surveyed students preferred the new format, the group said.
Before the test was given for the first time, some education consultants complained the College Board didn’t make many practice exams available to help students prepare. Yet for the first time, the non-profit offered free practice tests developed by Khan Academy on its website. The site has had more than 1.1 million unique users, which the organization says is “four times the total population of students who use commercial test prep classes in a year,” and it says there was a 19% drop in the number of students who took the March 5 test who paid for SAT prep.
The ACT, a competing standardized college entrance exam, also makes test prep materials available on its website for $39.95 (waived for low-income students) and has free sample questions on its website.
Cohen at IvyWise says which test to take depends on the student, which her firm determines by giving diagnostic versions of both tests. But “more often than not, international students perform better on the ACT as it tends to be a more straight-forward test.” Adler also believes international students are best off taking the ACT, which she exclusively recommends for international students.