College Board to Streamline Math Questions, Scale Back Reuse of Tests for SAT
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College Board to Streamline Math Questions, Scale Back Reuse of Tests for SAT

Organization hopes to reduce cheating and help students whose native language is not English

September 26, 2016

The oldest college-entrance exam in the United States will shortly be undergoing a makeover.

College Board, the nonprofit that makes the SAT, will be streamlining its new math questions and reduce the organization's reuse of tests, a longtime practice that leaves the exam open to cheating.

College Board Chief Executive David Coleman said that the organization wants to simplify the word problems contained in the new math sections to get rid of "superfluous words." He made the remarks at a conference of colleges and guidance counselors after Reuters reported how the word problems in the math sections of the new SAT are much more wordy than the organization's internal specifications require.

Coleman also indicated that the College Board intends to lessen how often it recycles SAT questions that were used on prior exams. Reuters has reported in the past year about Asian test-preparation companies are keeping old questions to be used by students as practice. These students have a big advantage over others when those questions are reused on the real test.

The SAT and the ACT exams are major gatekeepers for higher education institutions in the U.S. Millions of students in high schools throughout the country take the exams every year, and American colleges and universities—particularly the ones that are the most selective. Use the results of the tests to choose which applicants to admit.

The audience at the annual conference of the National Association for College Admission Counseling pressed Coleman about these issues during his appearance this year.

Judi Robinovitz, who works as an educational consultant in Florida, was concerned about a report issued by Reuters indicating that the College Board had ignored its own internal research, which had found that the new math questions were too long. A reviewer who was hired by both the College Board as well as other experts warned that such wordiness could be harmful to those students whose native language is not English.

Although Coleman insisted that the organization had noticed "no meaningful difference" in the completion rates for the new exam between students whose first language was one other than English and students who were native English speakers, he did state that there will be changes made to the new test, which just debuted in March.

"We are going to do everything we can to further simplify the mathematics section. Using superfluous words is superfluous," he said. "Every extra word should go. Complex, distracting situations should go."

Robinovitz stated after Coleman's appearance that she was pleased the organization would be simplifying the wording of the math problems.

Another college consultant questioned Coleman regarding cheating on the SAT and the possibility of completely eliminating the practice of reusing old questions and instead using single-use "one-and-done" exams.

"If you want to stop cheating internationally, give the tests once," the consultant advised. "Don't repeat the same test ever."

Coleman stated that it was necessary to reuse some questions, but agreed that the practice was used too frequently. He indicated that the College Board is trying to reduce it, but reminded attendees that the process will be expensive and slow.

"I think first and done is exactly right ... it is exactly what we should all seek. And it's going to take substantial advances in costs," he said. "I do seek a better future and I do want to work on redesigning item and form redevelopment such that we can get there. And we are moving towards much greater first use and much more targeted reuse."