First look at sample questions coming in revamped SAT

Students participate in a SAT prep course at Students participate in a SAT prep course at Mineola High School on Oct. 28, 2013. Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

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Students worldwide today get a first look at dozens of SAT questions similar to what test-takers may confront when the revamped college-admissions exam debuts in 2016, with what its designers bill as "real world" math problems revolving around hotel taxes, gas mileage and currency exchange rates and less-obscure vocabulary questions.

One such math question, for example, cites an American tourist who makes a purchase in India costing 602 rupees in local currency. The traveler's bank posts a credit-card charge of $9.88, including a currency conversion fee of 4 percent. Test-takers must calculate the exchange rate to the nearest whole number: 63 rupees to the dollar.

Wednesday's unveiling of sample SAT questions by the Manhattan-based College Board, the test's nonprofit sponsor, follows the announcement last month of the redesign, which will include other new features and drop the requirement of a written essay. The new version is to be given for the first time in spring 2016.

The new approach incorporates fewer and more focused topics in mathematics, greater emphasis on analysis of complex texts including scientific subjects, and use of reading passages that deal with potentially controversial issues in American politics and government.

"The changes to the SAT will distinguish it from any current admission exam," declares a letter issued by College Board along with the release of sample questions. "It is our goal that every student who takes the test will be well-informed and will know exactly what to expect on the day of the test."

The letter is signed by David Coleman, the College Board president, and Cynthia Schmeiser, the agency's chief of assessment.

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The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a Boston-area advocacy group, has dismissed the planned SAT changes as largely cosmetic. The group, known as FairTest, long has campaigned against what it calls the overuse of standardized tests. The group also contends that the revamped SAT will continue to be less effective than high school grade averages in predicting students' success in college.

"The changes may make the SAT appear more consumer-friendly, but they do not make it a better test," said Bob Schaeffer, FairTest's public education director.

Schmeiser, during a media briefing, said the revamped exam will be more engaging for students and distinctly different from the ACT, a rival college-admissions test.

ACT, which is published by an agency of the same name in Iowa, recently outstripped the SAT in overall use, though the SAT remains the entrance test most often taken by students on Long Island and elsewhere along the East Coast.

A total 1.66 million students in the Class of 2013 took the SAT, including 157,989 students in New York State. About 1.8 million students took the ACT, including 53,287 in New York. Many students take both the SAT and ACT, and many also take each test more than once, hoping to better their scores.

Not everyone agrees that the new SAT -- which remains mostly multiple-choice -- will be all that special. Many note that the College Board's decision to make the written essay optional is the same approach long used by the ACT. The written essay was added to the SAT in 2005.

"Some of the changes announced recently by the SAT are things that we've been doing for years," said Ed Colby, an ACT spokesman.

FairTest also criticized College Board's commitment to base at least one reading passage in each exam on a fundamental document in United States history, such as the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution or a related speech or position paper.

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College Board said its commitment embodies the agency's belief that all students should routinely study texts that explore challenging ideas.

FairTest contends, on the other hand, that inclusion of such texts could disadvantage students from overseas. Issues covered by documentary texts will not be limited to political controversies aired in the distant past; some remain hotly disputed even now.

One set of draft test questions released Wednesday is based on a 1974 speech in which the late Barbara Jordan, then a Democratic congresswoman from Texas, made a constitutional case for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon, a Republican. Test-takers must decide whether Jordan is best described as A) an idealist setting forth principles; B) an advocate seeking a compromise position; C) an observer striving for neutrality; or D) a scholar researching a historical controversy.

The answer designated as correct is A.

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