No doubt when you took the SAT, all you remember is a marathon brain-bending day of filling in tiny ovals with No. 2 pencils. There were likely baffling vocabulary words you've never seen again and ridiculous math problems that left you gaping at your calculator.

These days, the SAT is making headlines. Scores on the college admission test have dropped to their lowest since the test was overhauled a decade ago. The test is being utterly revamped early next year. More school systems are requiring students to take it (or its rival, the ACT), yet more colleges are saying the test is optional.

What do the low scores mean?

The average score for the class of 2015 was 1490 out of the maximum of 2400, reported the College Board in early September. That's a seven-point drop from the year before and the lowest composite score in the last 10 years.

Some educational pundits took this as yet another sign that the educational quality in our schools was on the decline.

“Why is education reform hitting a wall in high school?” Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute think tank, told The Washington Post. “You see this in all kinds of evidence. Kids don’t make a whole lot of gains once they’re in high school. It certainly should raise an alarm.”

But one key factor to consider is that more students took the test than ever before. A record 1.7 million students took the test from the class of 2015. That's up 1.6 percent from the year before.

"The number of people going to college, the number of folks taking assessments keeps increasing, so as we're casting a broader net, we're getting more people who have never taken the SAT or ACT before," says Jed Applerouth, nationally certified counselor and founder of Atlanta-based Applerouth Tutoring Services. "People aren't getting dumber. That's not the narrative. Nearly every single student takes the SAT or ACT now, so it's not just the traditional student who would've taken the SAT in the past."

Why and how the test is changing

When the SAT was created, it was a scholastic "aptitude" test, designed to test a student's intrinsic intelligence. The name evolved and it allegedly became a scholastic "achievement" test, but critics say it never truly tested how much students really know. The goal of the test is to see how prepared a student is for college, instead they say it just tests how well they prepped for the nearly four-hour exam.

The new SAT will be designed to test students on what they know — not how well they have studied. The goal is twofold. It will hopefully be a better assessment of the knowledge students already have and it also levels the playing field, so that the kids who can afford test prep don't have an advantage over those who can't.

Here are some of the ways the test will be different when students first face it in March 2016:

  • No penalty for wrong answers. With the current version of the test, students are penalized for guessing. Now it's worth a shot to hazard a guess.
  • No more obscure vocabulary words. The new test will ask students to define words based on how they are used in context, instead of quizzing them on words they will never see again.
  • The essay will be optional. Now, like with the ACT, the SAT's timed essay won't be required. That will bring the maximum score down to 1600 instead of 2400.
  • Math will be more focused. Instead of lightly touching on all types of math problems, the math section will be focused on three areas: algebra, problem solving and data analysis, and advanced math.
  • Topics will become broader. Like the ACT, the new SAT will include questions from science and social studies.

students in desks taking a testMany states and school districts are using the SAT as an end-of-year assessment, and as a result, more students are taking the test. (Photo: Laurence Gough/Shutterstock)

The SAT and ACT as assessment tests

Ask anyone with a student in public schools and you'll hear about over-testing. Especially as students get older, the end-of-year assessments can take up an inordinate amount of time that could be spent learning. Plus, many worry that teachers are pressured to "teach to the test," rushing to make sure everything in the curriculum is covered instead of taking time to make sure concepts are explained and understood.

In the vast majority of states, students are tested on how well they've grasped understanding of the Common Core standards, clear guidelines set for kindergarten through grade 12.

So several states and individual school systems began using the SAT or ACT as end-of-year assessments to see how much students learned.

"The states are saying if students are going to take the SAT or the ACT anyway because they're going to get into college, they care about it and they're going to try hard to do well on it, why administer another test that will provide them with a score but the score doesn’t count? Why add another test on top of that?" explains Robert Rothman, a senior fellow with the Alliance for Excellent Education, a nonprofit that focuses on education equality.

In theory that seems logical, but Rothman says there are many problems with using these college entrance tests in a way they weren't intended.

"These tests are not designed to measure the state curriculum. They won't really produce information to the extent to which schools are succeeding bringing students to the standard to which the states have set. If the standards and the tests don’t measure the same thing, teachers will put more emphasis on the test. Then some standards don’t get taught."

Originally, states tended to gravitate towards the ACT because it covered school curriculum more closely than the SAT. That's one of the reasons the SAT is changing.

"The ACT was on an absolute tear because of its superior Common Core alignment. It looked at 'How well did you educate them?' not just 'Are they prepared for college?'" says Applerouth. "By design, the ACT is more of an achievement test while the SAT is an aptitude test. So the SAT had to change and move toward achievement."

More than a dozen states currently use the SAT or ACT as an end-of-year assessment, and that number is expected to nearly double by the end of the year, reports the Christian Science Monitor. A few more states either pay for or require their students to take one of the tests.

wake forest universityThe SAT and ACT are optional for students who apply to Wake Forest University. (Photo: Wake Forest University)

Are the tests still important?

Some colleges have made the SAT or ACT optional for admission consideration. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing reports that 800 schools don't require the SAT or ACT or "de-emphasize the use of standardized tests." These include universities such as Wake Forest and George Washington.

“We want outstanding students from all over the world and from all different backgrounds — regardless of their standardized scores — to recognize GW as a place where they can thrive,” Dean of Admissions Karen Stroud Felton told The Washington Post.

But some educational observers wonder if the student body really gets any more diverse and whether the admissions department actually turns a blind eye to test scores (or the fact that they're missing).

"When you look at the schools that are going score-optional, it's just like it's optional to pay for dinner on a first date. You don’t have to do it, but you probably should," says Anthony-James Green, founder of Green Test Prep, who is known for charging $1,000/hour for his SAT and ACT tutoring services.

"The average scores are often way higher at those schools than the scores at the non-optional schools. Any student who gets a great score submits it. They're still very much used in the acceptance process."

Rothman agrees.

"I think they're as significant as they always were," says Rothman, who points out that many colleges making the tests optional are smaller schools that look at a lot of other information for admission anyway.

"The large universities where most students apply get deluged with applications and they need some way of making the first cut — and test scores and grades are the way they do that. That's not going to change. I don’t see them giving up on tests in the near future. Colleges are going to require them and students are going to continue to take them seriously."

Although test prep companies and tutors obviously have a horse in this race, few industry observers think the SAT or ACT will ever go away.

"These tests are becoming more important every single day," says Green. "They're still the only objective metric out there. There's no other way to compare two students side by side."

The good news is these tests only get students in the door. Grade point average and standardized test scores typically are the gateways that get admission counselors to open an application, say education experts.

"They do tell the colleges that look at them something but they don’t tell them everything," says Rothman. "They're important, but students shouldn't feel that the tests are the only measure of their qualifications for college."

Mary Jo DiLonardo covers a wide range of topics focused on nature, health, science and anything that helps make the world a better place.

Why is the SAT changing?
The college entrance test will undergo an overhaul in the spring, and here's why that matters.