And the math? “There are a few things that matter disproportionately, like proportional reasoning, linear equations and linear functions,” Mr. Coleman said. “Those are the kinds of things we’re going to concentrate on.” He also mentioned that it shouldn't be about picking the right answer, but about being able to explain and see the applications of math.
Big changes are coming to the nation’s two competing admissions tests.
Mr. Coleman is intent on rethinking the SAT to make it an instrument that meshes with what students are learning in their classrooms. Meanwhile, the ACT, which has always been more curriculum-based, is the first of the two to move into the digital age. In adapting its test for the computer, ACT Inc. is moving toward more creative, hands-on questions.
Both organizations are striving to produce something beyond a college admissions test. ACT plans to start yearly testing as early as third grade to help guide students to college readiness. One of Mr. Coleman’s goals is for the College Board to help low-income students see broader college possibilities.
Since he arrived at the College Board in October, Mr. Coleman has been working on a fundamental redesign of the SAT, which he announced in February. The test, he said, should focus on “things that matter more so that the endless hours students put into practicing for the SAT will be work that’s worth doing.”
As the architect of the Common Core standards — guidelines for what students should learn in each grade — that are being put into place in most states, it is no surprise that he has clear views on what the SAT should test, although he declines to offer specifics because College Board members need to be consulted on every element of the redesign.
In 2005, spurred by the threat that the University of California system might no longer consider its test for admission, the College Board introduced with fanfare the “New SAT,” dropping quantitative comparisons and the “warm is to cool as top is to ___” analogies and adding more advanced math, in the process making the test more like the ACT.
Competition between the two tests has not let up: for the first time last year, the ACT surpassed the SAT in market share. With the new redesign, the SAT seems likely to inch even closer in content to the ACT, which focuses more on grammar, usage and mechanics than on vocabulary.
“Kids need to have a level of ambition,” he said, “because what we find is that absent the intensity of a peer group committed to getting into college, kids just fall away, even a lot of the ones who do very well on the test, and could go to top colleges.”
Recent research on how few high-achieving low-income students apply to top colleges, and that the College Board must help ensure that these students get information about colleges they could aspire to and financial aid that would pay for it were considered.
“We will consider students who take the assessment as within our care, and that means that sending out a score report isn’t the end of it,” he said.
Starting in 2015, the ACT will be available on a computer as well as, for the time being, on paper. Those who take the test on a computer will see a new breed of questions — free-response questions in which students manipulate on-screen images to form their conclusions. In one sample question, students move a plunger on a cylindrical gas tank to change gas pressure and temperature. They then write a few sentences describing the relationship between distance and pressure and between temperature and pressure, and graph those relationships.
Many details of digitization remain to be resolved. Which questions will be graded by computer, and which by humans? And because the two versions need to be comparable, just how many beyond-the-bubble questions will be added to the mix?
One decision that has been made: content will be unchanged.
Indeed, ACT wants to reach ever younger — into elementary school. Next year, it will start rolling out a series of computer-based tests that track student learning over time as well as progress in the current school year, and measure how far above or below grade level a student is in core subjects. Alabama, for one, has signed on to use the tests as its end-of-year assessment for Grades 3 to 8. In the program, parents and teachers will get increasingly detailed reports outlining the skills needed to be ready for college.