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Optional Essay, And Other Changes Coming To The SAT

The essay is optional. Scores will return to 1,600. And there'll be no penalties if you answer something incorrectly: Those are the big takeaways from the changes announced today to the SAT.

The College Board said Wednesday that the revisions, the first updates to the college entrance exam since 2005, will take effect in 2016.

Other changes announced: Certain vocabulary words will be dropped in favor of those more commonly used in school and at work, and test-takers will have the option to take the SAT on a computer.

In remarks in Austin, Texas, College Board President David Coleman said the changes to the SAT should make test-takers breathe easier.

"By changing the exam's focus, we change the learning and work the SAT invites. Today, many students who are terrified they will be tested on lots of SAT words have one recourse: flashcards," he said. "Every educator knows flashcards are not the best way to build real-word knowledge, but when the SAT rolls around they become the royal road. Students stop reading and start flipping."

The Associated Press reports:

"A longstanding criticism of the SAT is that students from wealthier households do better on the exam because they can afford expensive test preparation classes.

"The College Board seeks to defuse that by saying it will partner with the nonprofit Khan Academy to provide free test preparation materials for the redesigned SAT. It also says every income-eligible student who takes the SAT will receive four fee waivers to apply for college, which continues an effort the College Board has had to assist low-income students."

NPR's Claudio Sanchez is discussing the changes to the test on today's All Things Considered. We'll post the audio of his conversation with NPR's Melissa Block as soon as it becomes available.

Until now, students' performance on tests like the SAT have played a big role in which colleges and universities they get into. But as NPR's Eric Westervelt reported last month, a new study raises questions about whether standardized tests are becoming obsolete.

That story noted that "some 800 of the roughly 3,000 colleges and universities in America make SAT or ACT submissions optional." And the study cited in Eric's report compared students who took a standardized test and those who didn't. Here's more from Eric's story:

"[The study] found that there was virtually no difference in grades and graduation rates between test 'submitters' and 'nonsubmitters.' Just 0.05 percent of a GPA point separated the students who submitted their scores to admissions offices and those who did not. And college graduation rates for 'nonsubmitters' were just 0.6 percent lower than those students who submitted their test scores."

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