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A+ Schools Chief: Major Changes to the SAT Are Necessary

Essay optional. No penalties for wrong answers. The SAT college entrance exam is undergoing sweeping revisions.

Changes in the annual test that millions of students take will also do away with some vocabulary words such as "prevaricator" and "sagacious" in favor of words more commonly used in school and on the job.

Current high school freshmen will be the first to take the new SAT, which College Board officials say will be better representative of what teens are studying in high school. The test should offer "worthy challenges, not artificial obstacles," College Board President David Coleman said in remarks prepared for delivery at an event in Austin, Texas.

Carey Harris, executive director of A+ Schools in Pittsburgh, agrees.

"The most fair thing we can do is be assessing kids on what they've learned," she said. "With the Common Core, we should have a common set of what kids are learning across the country, so it would make sense that the SAT would be aligned to those standards."

One of the biggest changes is that the extra penalty for wrong answers, which discouraged guessing, will be eliminated. The essay will be changed to measure students' ability to analyze and explain how an author builds an argument, instead of measuring the coherence of the writing but not the quality or accuracy of the reasoning. It will be up to school districts and colleges the students apply to as to whether the essay will be required.

Instead of testing a wide range of math concepts, the new exam will focus on a few areas, like algebra, which is considered to be most needed for college and life afterward.

One criticism of the SAT was that students from wealthier households do better on the exam because they can afford expensive test preparation classes. So the College Board has decided to partner with the nonprofit Khan Academy to provide free test preparation materials.

In addition, low income students who take the SAT will receive four fee waivers to apply for college. 

Harris said the changes in assessments are necessary.  

"We need assessments," she said. "They're important, but we need to keep making them better, and better reflective of what kids need to know and what kids do know in order to be successful in the future."

Kevin Gavin is the host of WESA's news interview program "The Confluence." He is a native Pittsburgher and served as news director for 90.5 WDUQ for 34 years. Since the sale of the radio station by Duquesne University to Pittsburgh EPM, Inc. (now Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corp.), he served as Executive Producer of Special News Projects prior to being named as host of "The Confluence" five years ago. kgavin@wesa.fm