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Education leaders: Even with changes, SAT not best tool to measure college readiness

Changes to the SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) college admissions test will make it a better test, but it still has a long way to go to become a true predictor of collegiate success, say education officials across Franklin County.

The College Board announced earlier this month that it would roll out changes to the test in 2016, including making the essay optional, changing the content of the questions and eliminating penalties for incorrect guesses. The test-makers hope it will be more aligned with what students are learning in high school. They also hope to eliminate an economic barrier for low-income students who can’t afford tutors or out-of-school prep classes, by providing free online tutorials through KhanAcademy.org.

“It’s definitely an improvement for students,” said Bill Wehrli, principal of Pioneer Valley Regional School. “If it reduces how much it’s rewarding test-taking, and it’s more about thinking skills and knowledge, that seems like a better test.”

Indeed, test-makers are hoping that the SAT will become less about eliminating choices and more about defending why an answer is the correct one. It will focus more on math concepts used in the real world, like functions and linear equations. Instead of having students complete a sentence with a specific word, they’ll ask them to explain the context of how a certain vocabulary word is used.

With the changes, the SAT is now more in line with the Common Core State Standards that Massachusetts schools have adopted, said Darius Modestow, principal of Frontier Regional School.

“This will make it easier for schools to prepare students for the exam,” he said. The school has already been teaching some of the new areas the test will focus on, like writing arguments and emphasizing problem-solving data analysis in math over memorizing algorithms.

Still, even with the improvements, the SAT is “not the best tool” in determining how ready a student is for college, said Wehrli, who believes students’ academic grades tell more of the story.

At Stoneleigh-Burnham School, a private school for girls, teachers emphasize general learning over test-prep strategies for that very reason, said Lauren Cunniffe, director of college counseling.

And in fact, the SAT is changing because it wasn’t testing for the types of skills the business world is seeking in its employees, argued Bill Bazyk, the Greenfield School Department’s director of student services.

“This is the first generation moving through the information age and the SAT is no longer a good measure of intelligence,” he said.

But the SAT’s move to let students take it on the computer, as opposed to only allowing paper, is a step in the right direction, said Bazyk. Computer tests have the ability — although there’s no indication the SAT will do this immediately — to adapt to the test-taker and give a more accurate diagnostic of what areas a student excels and struggles in, he said.

Choosing to make the essay portion optional (colleges will need to decide if they are going to require it in applications) also makes sense, said Bobby Storey, guidance counselor for Mohawk Trail Regional High School. He sides with established SAT opponent Les Perelman, a director of writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Details count, he says, but there is no real look into factual accuracy,” said Storey.

Wehrli’s issue with the 25-minute essay is that people don’t generally write something in such a hurried fashion. They usually take care with their thoughts and words and will revisit it for a second draft or have a peer review it before submitting, he said.

Many school leaders did agree, though, that the SAT’s partnership with KhanAcademy.org will help reduce the income inequality that comes with the test. The 8-year-old nonprofit educational website gives free tutorials on a variety of subjects.

While Greenfield High School offers SAT prep classes in its curriculum, other public schools in the county said that they didn’t and that students needed to look to books or after-school classes to get additional preparation.

Storey has already been directing his students to KhanAcademy.org. The new SAT prep classes will roll out on the website in spring 2015 and will all be free.

You can reach Chris Shores at: cshores@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 264

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