The Common Core Is Driving the Changes to the SAT

The recently announced redesign will bring the test in line with the standards.

Eric Gay/AP Photo

The SAT and ACT—the premier college admissions examinations–have “become disconnected from the work of our high schools.” This proclamation by David Coleman, president of The College Board (the developer of the SAT), came during his announcement of forthcoming changes to the SAT that will aim to address this issue. And while this news has touched off a flurry of headlines, the national media and higher education outlets are missing a huge piece of the story: the role the Common Core has played in driving these changes.

The major content and procedural changes the SAT will undergo have been well documented by news outlets—the New York Timesthe Chronicle, and Inside Higher Education, to name a few. The announced changes move the SAT closer to ACT’s content-based method of assessment, an achievement test seen as more connected to the work of high schools. Wonkblog pointed out that ACT’s increased market share (up to 54 percent) is no doubt driving these changes to the SAT.

It’s not just ACT’s increased market share that’s got the SAT’s creators worried. In a country with 50 sets of education standards and 50 different state-developed high school assessments, the ACT and SAT have touted their unique ability to compare diverse applicants from across the United States. But the work of high schools themselves is now converging, and students from 45 states and the District of Columbia are working toward mastery of the same academic standards.

While the Times, the Post, the Chronicle, and Inside Higher Ed all gave a brief nod toward Coleman’s role in developing those Common Core State Standards for K-12 education, adopted by this large majority of states, neither Coleman nor the national media have really honed in on how the standards are driving the College Board—as well as the ACT—to change their product. To this point, in the new education landscape that has taken shape since these standards’ widespread adoption, how useful really are college admissions tests that do not actually assess the standards that we have determined prepare students for college and careers?

There’s little doubt that ACT recognized this point and has updated their products in response. ACT recently announced the launch of new assessments for grades 3-8 that are explicitly designed to assess the Common Core standards, ACT Aspire, which will culminate in the ACT for high school assessment. Last year, Alabama officially announced that it will use these tests to assess mastery of their state standards, the Common Core.

When Coleman became president of the College Board back in 2012, after his work developing the Common Core, he stated his goal for moving the SAT to better reflect those standards. On Wednesday, Education Week described in detail how the new changes to the SAT align with the Common Core—and presented an excellent side-by-side comparison of the SAT and Common Core that illustrates how Coleman’s goal will become a reality. (Education Week, largely focused on K-12 education news, has expertly covered the role of the Common Core in driving changes to the SAT.)

This new SAT will not be released until 2016—but next year students will begin to take assessments developed by two state consortia that explicitly measure mastery of the Common Core standards. The high school assessments will provide detailed information about student achievement in reading and mathematics, and will provide a source of student achievement data that is comparable across states. It may prove that these state-developed Common Core assessments are also a strong predictor of college success.

As the New York Times reiterated, “Critics have long pointed out—and Mr. Coleman admits—that high school grades are a better predictor of college success than standardized test scores.” While the SAT and ACT are currently the only players in the market of college admissions exams, they still have not succeeded in creating products that have stronger predictive power than high school grade point average. Though these two assessment giants are now trying to connect with the Common Core, it remains to be seen whether their new tests will be more predictive of student success in college. While the SAT and ACT are trying to stay ahead of the curve, perhaps the two new college- and career-ready assessments will have better grades.

This post also appears on New America's Ed Central, an Atlantic partner site.