"Any change could have a disproportionate effect on girls, especially if math becomes more rigorous," said Seppy Basili, vice president of college admissions and K-12 programs at Kaplan Test Prep. "There could be more emphasis on math as colleges aren't using writing scores as much."
A significant gender math gap persists in the exam, currently giving a 33-point advantage to male students. High school boys outperformed girls on the 2012 SAT math test with an average score of 532 points--two points higher than 2011-- compared to an average score of 499 for high school females, according to the College Board. The results indicate a continuing upward trend in better math achievement by boys that dates to 1972, when the board began collecting published data.
The College Board writes the college entrance exam, but the New York City-based nonprofit has not disclosed the details of the changes to the exam announced Feb. 27, nor when the new test will be released.
But the industry is buzzing with anticipation.
Last month, Kaplan surveyed high school students and parents about whether they think the SAT needs to be changed. Some 45 percent of parents said yes compared to 39 percent of SAT takers. Parents in favor of changing the SAT varied on what they felt should change, though they consistently said that content needs to be made relevant to the times, in particular to the new economy.
Kaplan, headquartered in New York City, is the leading purveyor of SAT prep services. In 2012, Kaplan served more than 427,000 students, including tens of thousands of SAT students. Basili's team writes the SAT prep books.
"The test could become more concrete, which is worse for girls, and more of the test might be timed," Basili said. "If timing is more liberal, girls might do better." A February 2013 study, in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, indicated that removing time-limited competition from classroom learning could help girls improve their math performance.
Test Score Perspective
But Bob Schaeffer, public education director of The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, based in Jamaica Plain, Mass., said lower female SAT scores should be kept in perspective. "Females score lower on standardized tests and get higher grades in college," he said, referencing a historic database tracking SAT scores by gender since 1966.
Revision of the SAT may in part be a reaction to the increasing popularity of the ACT test, which competes for market share. The SAT was formerly known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test and the ACT is the American College Test, put out by an Ohio-based company.
"It's fair to say they are like Coke and Pepsi," said Kaplan's Basili.
The two tests cover comparable material in different ways, but students can submit either one to most colleges. The instructional wording on the ACT is considered plainer and requires less switching back and forth among different types of subjects and activities. (Here's a detailed comparison of the SAT vs. the ACT.)
In 2011 the ACT surpassed the SAT among test takers for the first time.
While it's hard to generalize, Alan Sheptin, president of Sheptin Tutoring Group in the fiercely competitive suburb of Westchester County, N.Y., is willing to take a stab.
"The ACT is designed for concrete learners," Sheptin said in a phone interview. "Boys tend to fare well on it. The SAT is more formulaic and non-concrete. It's more coachable and good for girls on the reading/writing side who think more floridly."
He added that, "With the SAT you have to think strategically. 'Should I or shouldn't I answer a question?' It adds another dimension. Now more students say they like the ACT because it's easier."
This spring, his company is tutoring 120 students for both tests. "The ACT has been tweaked but never overhauled. That says the test is working."
Meanwhile, Sheptin said more schools are treating tests as optional and don't find the SAT to be "a good bellwether of preparedness. Some say it is designed closer to an IQ test; that it has not kept up with curriculum while the ACT has."
This is the third time the SAT will be overhauled. The last redesign was in 2005, with the addition of a written essay and greater test time allotted. This chart shows changes in the gender gap since the "new" SAT was introduced.
The essay portion of the SAT has been criticized by David Coleman, president of the College Board, for not reflecting what goes on in the classroom. The board indicated it is making changes so that the SAT can be more in line with common core curriculum standards of high schools nationally.
"We will develop an assessment that mirrors the work that students will do in college so that they will practice the work they need to do to complete college," Coleman said in a press release in February.
Some colleges did not care to speculate for the record about what the changes will bring.
At MIT, spokesperson Christopher LaBounty told Women's eNews that "Since we don't know how the SAT is going to change it is hard to presuppose, but as long as the test remains unbiased it shouldn't have any specific effect on women positively or negatively." At the Cambridge, Mass., school, females account for 45 percent of admissions.
Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., ranked as a leader in conferring undergraduate degrees on women in science, technology, engineering and math in a survey by Forbes last year. The elite math and sciences school requires the SAT or ACT, but also the SAT math subject test and another SAT subject test of choice. Many schools don't require subject tests.
Higher College Enrollment
The college's Admissions Officer Raissa Diamante said in a phone interview that the national trend is of higher college enrollment for women. Some 55 percent of college admissions now go to women nationally. Female admissions are at 42 percent this year at Harvey Mudd College.
Diamante added that the SAT doesn't necessarily reflect what goes on in the classroom since young women are performing strongly in math and science in high school. Still, she said "if the SAT becomes harder for women we would be worried about it."
When evaluating applicants, "we use so many other markers than the standardized test in admissions. It's grades, writing in classes and test scores. Tests don't act as a kind of cut off but more like a checks-and-balance system to inform the students' abilities," Diamante said. "The SAT informs the performance. It doesn't define it."
Since the SAT tests what students learn in their high school classrooms and how they apply that knowledge, course-taking differences may have an effect on the differing scores between males and females, said Lesley Sepuka, the public relations spokesperson at the College Board.
"For example, 28 percent of males in the class of 2012 reported taking calculus versus 23 percent of females. More male students (57 percent) reported taking physics than female students (49 percent)," he said. "We also know that more females are taking AP or honors language arts classes than males. For example, 47 percent of females report taking AP or honors English, compared to 37 percent of males."