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First scores are in on revised SAT college admissions exam

Daisy Abello, 16, and her Freeport High School

Daisy Abello, 16, and her Freeport High School classmates work on their Chromebooks in teacher Joshua Levitt's 11th-grade AP U.S. History class on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017. Credit: Barry Sloan

National scores for the Class of 2017 on the redesigned SAT college entrance exam are the highest posted in 45 years, though not an overall indicator that students from Long Island and elsewhere have bettered their test performance.

The combined average of 1060 points out of a possible 1600 on the reading and math sections — a rise from 1002 in the 2016 student cohort — cannot be compared with past years’ results, test sponsors said, because of a rescaling of the SAT’s scoring system.

The redesigned SAT, introduced in March 2016, reflected the most extensive changes in a decade, including principles embodied in the Common Core academic standards. It had more long reading passages, eliminated the penalty for wrong answers and got rid of the well-known “SAT words” that featured sometimes obscure vocabulary, among other changes.

The recalibrated scores reflect a thorough overhaul of the SAT based on new benchmarks for measuring students’ readiness for college, sponsors at the Manhattan-based College Board said. That overhaul had the effect of aligning the test’s content more closely with lessons taught in classrooms.

Board officials voiced hope that future scores will show genuine improvement in students’ performance.

“We do hope this pays off next year,” David Coleman, president of College Board since 2012, said during a teleconference last week.

Coleman and other test officials said they have tried to promote such improvement by providing more academic support for students — specifically, by teaming up with Khan Academy, a California-based nonprofit, to offer free online tutoring.

On paper, the scores released Tuesday are the highest reported since 1972, the earliest year for which figures are available.

Nationally, the new baseline scores — that is, the numbers that will be used in future comparisons — average 533 points for reading and 527 for math. In 2016, that breakdown was 494 in reading and 508 in math. The top score for each section is 800.

Scores from the SAT, originally known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, have served as a national academic barometer since the exam was launched in 1926. Reading scores have steadily declined since the 1970s, while math results rebounded briefly, then flattened out again.

In recent years, the SAT’s status has been eclipsed a bit as more college-bound students opted for the rival ACT, based in Iowa, and as a growing number of universities and colleges loosened their admissions requirements for both tests, making them optional.

Some test experts speculated that College Board rescaled SAT scores upward this year to make the exam more palatable for customers. The organization responded that scores from the revamped test simply cannot be compared with past figures because the scoring measures different content and skills.

The SAT, in any case, remains the dominant college admissions test administered on the East Coast, including Long Island. More than 1.7 million students around the world in the Class of 2017 cohort took the exam.

One frequent past complaint was that students who could afford tutors held an unfair advantage in prepping for the test. In 2014, College Board sought to provide greater support through its association with Khan Academy and the results of that venture are promising, officials said.

In May, College Board and Khan Academy announced that students who spent 20 hours preparing for the SAT via online instruction gained an average 115 points on the exam — nearly double the gain for students who didn’t use the service. Gains were measured by comparing SAT scores with results from a preliminary test, the PSAT.

On the Island as elsewhere, a growing number of high school guidance offices include Khan Academy’s training videos and practice tests in their lists of recommended aids to students. Some schools have gone a step further by incorporating the academy’s personalized prep program into their regular instruction.

Freeport High School announced recently that students planning to take the SAT would prepare by spending 20 minutes a day using the academy’s online program. The announcement coincided with the school’s distribution of 2,200 new Chromebook laptops to students for use in test preparation, research and other purposes.

Mary Anne DeVivio, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in the Freeport district, recalled her excitement last year when she heard of Khan Academy’s progress at an academic conference.

“I said to myself, ‘What could be a better opportunity to jump on this, when College Board says it’s successful?’ ” DeVivio recalled.

School administrators across the Island generally have welcomed the SAT’s redesign, saying that changes such as elimination of obscure vocabulary have made the test more reflective of what is taught in classrooms.

Many of those same administrators have expressed concern, however, that students and parents may become overanxious about the need to prep for college admissions tests.

“We have enough of a craze over test prep without promoting one test-prep vehicle over another,” said Michael Neary, director of guidance at Great Neck North High School.

Neary said counselors at his school advise students of the availablility of Khan Academy’s services when asked and that he considers the program “a valuable tool, free, as opposed to paying thousands for a private tutor.”

Robert Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, a Boston-based advocacy group, noted that about 40 percent of the nation’s four-year colleges and universities do not require applicants to submit entrance exam scores, but rather leave that optional.

Schaeffer, whose organization opposes what it regards as abuse of standardized testing, questioned College Board’s decision to recalibrate scores upward.

“The risk is that kids and their parents will think that their scores are more competitive than they actually are,” he said.

Highlights of SAT score release

  • Rescaled test scores are the highest numerically in 45 years, but cannot be compared with past results because new scores reflect different knowledge and skills.
  • Revamped SAT eliminates obscure vocabulary questions and more closely mirrors lessons taught in classrooms.
  • Test sponsors at College Board arrange free online tutoring for students in partnership with Khan Academy.
  • Changes take place against a backdrop of intense competition for market share between the SAT and rival ACT.

— John Hildebrand

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