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SAT Focuses on Achievement

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 like 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 You might also face challenges related to historical documents, such as decoding President Abraham Lincoln’s multiple uses of the word “dedicate” in the Gettysburg Address.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 Wednesday, 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 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, were fleshed out in detail Wednesday as the College Board released 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. Some observers have wondered whether all of the changes mean the SAT is becoming more like the ACT.

“Let me be clear — both the ACT and the SAT are achievement tests,” said Cyndie Schmeiser, chief of assessment for the College Board, who previously was a senior executive at the ACT. “But that’s where the similarity departs.”

Schmeiser said the SAT will put a premium on “extended thinking,” comprehension of graphs and charts, and the ability to respond to texts from humanities, social studies and sciences.

The revisions appear to echo, in part, concepts embedded in the new Common Core standards for what U.S. students should learn in math and English from kindergarten through 12th grade. Those standards have been fully adopted in 45 states and the District of Columbia. David Coleman, the College Board’s president and chief executive, was a key architect of Common Core, and he started pushing for a makeover of the admission test soon after taking office in 2012.

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.”

In reading, a section that will take 65 minutes, there will be 52 multiple-choice questions based on several passages totaling about 3,200 words. Forty percent of the passages will be in science, 40 percent in history/social studies and 20 percent in literature.

One sample question asks about this sentence: “The coming decades will likely see more intense clustering of jobs, innovation, and productivity in a smaller number of bigger cities and city-regions.”

Students are then asked whether “intense” most nearly means: A) emotional; B) concentrated; C) brilliant; or D) determined. The answer is B.

Other sample questions ask for analysis of a complex congressional speech on impeachment and for interpretation of data from a passage and informational graphic about turtle migration.

In writing and language, a section taking 35 minutes instead of the current 60 minutes, students will answer 44 multiple-choice questions about four selected passages dealing with careers, history/social studies, humanities and science.

The essay will take 50 minutes, instead of 25. Even though the essay will become optional, some colleges are likely to require it. The major change is that the essay will ask students to analyze a given argument rather than take a stance on a question. The College Board said students might be prompted to respond to a passage comparable to an excerpt from poet Dana Gioia’s essay on Why Literature Matters.

In math, students will have 80 minutes to answer 57 questions. Most are multiple-choice; some require students to provide answers themselves. The new math section will be 10 minutes longer and, unlike the current version, will require students to put away their calculators for 25 minutes.

“The calculator is a tool that students must use (or not use) judiciously,” the College Board said in a document explaining the changes to the test. The new exam focuses more tightly on algebra, problem solving, data analysis and what is called “passport to advanced math,” which includes analyzing and solving quadratic and higher-order equations. The test also contains geometry and trigonometry.

The changes amount to a substantial overhaul of a test that for millions of Americans was a rite of passage. Critics say that the SAT and the ACT are needless barriers to access and that high school grades are a better way to measure academic potential. A growing number of colleges don’t require admission tests, but most selective schools do.

For the College Board, the new SAT could help end the lingering public perception that the test is about IQ or aptitude. Previous revisions ditched analogies and antonyms — portions of the old verbal test seen as tricky and unrelated to what schools teach. Making the SAT more of an achievement test, one analyst said, could be a boon for students who stress about test preparation.

“Study hard and get good grades in school,” said Nicholas Lemann, a Columbia University journalism professor and author of The Big Test, a history of the SAT. “That’s a much healthier set of signals to send to students and parents out there.”