What the new SAT changes REALLY mean for Singaporeans

Our Program Manager, Khalid Barnwell, was asked by a Straits Times reporter what he believed the upcoming changes to the SAT would mean for Singaporean test takers.  Today's Straits Times feature stated the following:

"Mr. Khalid Barnwell, an instructor from Testtakers Singapore, added that doing away with negative marking -deducting points for wrong answers - will encourage students to take more risks in attempting questions instead of leaving them blank."

The overall slant of the article was that the new changes to the test will benefit Singaporean students.

But!  Khalid's actual comments that were sent to the reporter said a little bit more, and it didn't paint as rosy a picture for Singaporeans:

On the elimination of points deduction for wrong answers:

In a way it's nice that points will not be deducted for wrong answers.  In general, based on my experience, students in Singapore are risk adverse, and tend to leave questions unanswered if they do not absolutely know the correct answer, as opposed to those who actually benefit overall from aggressively, yet intelligently guessing.  Since test takers in fact do suffer a penalty for not answering questions due to the Raw Score calculation of the SAT (unanswered questions reduce one's maximum possible score), the fear of having points deducted will go down and as a result lead to students taking more of a chance and in general attaining higher raw scores.  Note, however, that the Scaled Score algorithm will adapt to reflect this effect and will reduce the score boost effect for all."

On the essay:

"The essay will be optional, and that at first glance will be a boon to Singaporean students, who generally struggle with the persuasive essay style that now features on the test.  However it could be the case that certain universities will still ask for the essay, for it serves other purposes than gauging writing ability (it also serves as a way to determine whether admissions application essays submitted are actually the student's essay, or the work of hired application essay writers).  In general, universities in the US (especially the most selective ones) like to have as much information about the applicant as possible, so I wouldn't be surprised if a significant number of schools will still ask for the essay as part of their admissions requirements.  So the gain to Singaporean test takers will increase, but only for those who apply to less selective schools that tend to require less. But for those who are applying to a range of schools in the US with varying selectivity in order to increase their chances of getting into at least one school, they will probably have to do the essay anyway just in case at least one of those schools require it.

Since the essay apparently will focus on building an essay based on provided passages and information sources, students will have an easier time formulating valid arguments and analyses, for they will not have to think of their own examples and references to back up their claims.  This will benefit Singaporean testers who usually struggle in this regard."

On grammar:

"It remains to be seen how much grammar will feature in the test, but if the grammar-oriented questions are eliminated, that will definitely benefit Singaporean testers, who struggle with some of the issues particular to American English and to "SAT English" - concepts that the test likes to include that technically is correct but is not commonly used, even to Americans."

On vocabulary and reading:

"The higher-level vocabulary usage is only minor and won't affect the test that much, for they feature in relatively few situations on the test.  There are many lower and medium-level words that occur frequently on the test and they will probably continue to appear.  The problem for Singaporeans is that many of these words are not used often here and have multiple meanings based on context.  I wouldn't be surprised if vocabulary-in-context questions become more prevalent in the new edition of the SAT, which is bad news for Singaporean testers.

The Reading passages will feature more passages from US History, so those who are not particularly familiar with such passages and their historical relevance will suffer a disadvantage.  This is therefore a potentially significant problem for Singaporeans, who know little to nothing about such subject matter."

On the Math:

"Singaporeans typically perform relatively well on the Math section, and since the scope of the test will narrow in the future, I expect performance levels to increase for Singaporean testers.  Reducing calculator use will have little effect on performance for Singaporeans, for technically Singaporeans don't really need the calculator for the current SAT.  Note that in general the Singaporean students who take the SAT are among the highest performing students academically in the country (as opposed to the population in the US who take the test, which includes a greater cross-section of all students)."

Final thoughts:

"Overall, the SAT has undergone numerous tweaks over the years, yet the need to navigate through the pitfalls and traps that the SAT creators love to include will remain in some sort of fashion.  There are many concepts covered in the test that are and will remain American in nature and usage, and the need for Singaporeans to familiarize themselves with such differences in grammar usage, vocabulary, writing style and, now, cultural relevance will endure.   Those who are familiar with these differences will possess a competitive advantage at the end of the day."