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Some Colleges Breathed a Sigh of Relief Over the Delay in the New SAT

For months college officials have heard all about the College Board’s plans to improve the SAT. At an admissions conference in September, David Coleman, the organization’s president, said he wanted to make the examination “beautiful.” Although the remark drew some chuckles, it conveyed his palpable enthusiasm for the new SAT, originally slated for a spring-2015 debut.

So some admissions deans were surprised when Mr. Coleman announced on Tuesday that the revamped exam would come one year later than expected. In an email to College Board members, Mr. Coleman said the organization’s constituents, especially colleges, had said they needed “more time.”

More time for what?

When admissions tests change, enrollment officials say, colleges must do a lot of grunt work. Students care about the content of the test and how long it takes, but enrollment officials must think about everything else, especially how a new exam might affect a crucial campus resource: data.

An admissions dean might ask many questions. What does an overhauled SAT mean for our longitudinal data, and how we report scores to our many constituents? How do we systematically compare scores from the new test to scores from the old one? How might that change the SAT’s concordance with the ACT? And will the new test have the same predictive value as the old one?

“We really use test scores a lot for research purposes,” says Pamela T. Horne, associate vice provost for enrollment management and dean of admissions at Purdue University. “Most people are going to think of the individual student with his paper and pencil taking the test, but that’s not the only place where the change happens. In fact, these test results end up in all kinds of places.”

The first place they end up is in a college’s student-information system. Depending on what the new SAT looks like, institutions will have to retool their databases.

Let’s say the SAT’s score scales change, from 200 to 800 to something else, like 1 to 100 (pure speculation here). Or perhaps a new section is added. Colleges then would need to create new fields in their systems (and also make sure the information loads properly).

Or what if the College Board offered to deliver an image of a student’s SAT essay to colleges? An admissions office would have to decide if it even wanted the document. If so, the admissions staff would then have to determine how to download and store it, says Robert G. Springall, dean of admissions at Bucknell University.

“Not hard stuff,” Mr. Springall writes by email, “but [it] takes programming time and testing.”

In 1995 the College Board “recentered” the SAT’s score scales, which established a new average score on each section. That change threw colleges’ historical data out of whack, complicating comparisons.

If the new test were to do the same, Ms. Horne says, colleges would need time to adjust: “If a 760 doesn’t mean the same thing as the old 760, you need to know that.” For one thing, she says, she would need to consider the possible implications for her university’s evaluation process.

Ms. Horne, a College Board trustee, says as Mr. Coleman and his staff heard from more and more colleges, they realized that the rollout schedule was too tight. “The way our cycles go, 2015 is really around the corner,” she says. “It sounds like tomorrow to me.”

Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions at Duke University, thought the original timeline was “pretty aggressive” when he first heard of it. In an email he described the delay as a wise move: “You only get one chance to get this right, so you have to make sure it’s all there. You don’t want to rush something that important.”

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