The organization that runs the SAT recently announced some major changes to the exam – there will no longer be a required essay portion and the vocabulary section will feature more commonly used words.  Predictably, the news has been met with mixed reaction.  Some welcome the changes because they may eliminate anxiety and better prepare students for the “real world.” Others question whether making the essay optional and presenting less challenging words “dumb down” the test. 

Personally, I’m discouraged. From public relations to finance to teaching, being able to compose well-written prose is crucial.  Whether you’re drafting an e-mail, sending an internal memo, or preparing public speaking remarks, successful writing is an important, transferrable skill.  I fear making the essay optional will encourage many to simply opt out of it. Because of this, a student who isn’t confident in his/her ability may fail to recognize his/her potential as writer.

The new vocabulary section is also a bad move.  Knowing words that are intimidating at first is one key to successful communication…which is ultimately at the heart of any career.  Students should be challenged to build a strong and varied vocabulary because it helps improve writing, public speaking and presentation, and the ability to accurately describe and illustrate situations. If studying and learning new and challenging words for the test is not mandatory, those who might truly benefit may miss out entirely.

One change to the SATs I see as a real positive is the new test-preparation tutorials for free online.  Students who may not have had access to any prep materials before will now have the opportunity to study and earn the best score possible, opening new doors beyond high school.  Making these materials available to all students, regardless of their background, will help close the achievement gap.

While it appears to me that the new SAT is more of a guessing game than a challenging exercise to measure one’s creative and critical thinking, only time will tell whether this redesign will make a difference…positive or negative.