The high school senior from Charlotte spent upwards of $1,000 on prep classes. She spent countless hours after her classes preparing for the test. She hoped to improve her score by one or two points to gain an edge against her competitors.

Sydney Bozman took the ACT a total of four times.

“I knew the high stakes of the test when I became a senior,” Bozman said. “I saw minor improvements in my score despite hours of ACT practice per week. I didn’t feel like I could perform my best with the high pressure."

Bozman’s story echoes the concerns many high school students across the United States have about standardized testing. 

Crafting a more relevant SAT

Standardized testing has long been a staple of the college admissions process in the United States. 1.7 million students took the SAT last year, and 1.8 million took the ACT. But with test scores dropping, changes are coming.

2014 marked the lowest average test scores for the SAT since the test’s format changed to include a mandatory writing section in 2005. The declining scores led the College Board, the organization in charge of the SAT, to change some of its policies.

Video Clip: Students reflect on their standardized testing experiences. Video by Kyle Lubinsky.

In March 2016, students will begin taking a redesigned SAT renewing the previous 1600 point-scale with reading and math sections at 800 points apiece. The essay section becomes optional and separately scored.

The test has also been simplified in other ways.

Students will not lose points for incorrect answers, and there are fewer math topics covered. The total number of answers for each multiple-choice question also shrinks from five to four.

When the changes to the SAT were revealed, David Coleman, president of College Board, expressed his disdain for the direction of standardized testing.

“We must certainly ask ourselves if we are, together or as a group, doing all we can to advance equity and excellence,” he said at the South by Southwest Education conference. 

Former test-takers are upset they didn't have a simplified math section.

“I felt very unprepared,” said Anthony Khashman, a senior at Charlotte Catholic High School. “The math was pre-calculus level, so if you took the SAT junior year and didn’t take pre-calculus that year, you were at a serious disadvantage.”

On the revised SAT, College Board will add word problems and decrease the number of equation-related questions.

Students taking the SAT now have the choice of taking the updated 1600-point test or the outgoing 2400-point test. But the choice will soon vanish when the last 2400-point test is administered Jan. 23, 2016.

Rethinking practice materials

After conducting a survey, College Board revealed individuals from lower income brackets have a lower mean score on both the Critical Reading and Mathematics sections of the SAT. To address this issue, College Board is working with Khan Academy and offering free online resources, including practice tests and quizzes. These practice resources became available to the public in spring 2015.

But some students struggled with understanding the practice materials. 

“I did the daily quiz questions and test prep College Board offers online," said Kirsten Amos, a freshman at Ohio State University. "But those always gave me perfect scores that my actual test didn’t reflect."

Despite some negative feedback, College Board representatives hope its new partnership with Khan Academy will ease the preparation process for students.

“When students start working on Official SAT Practice, they’ll automatically be guided to short diagnostic quizzes to identify the skills they should focus on,” said Maria Eugenia Alcon-Heraux, director of media relations for College Board. “Once they finish the quizzes, Khan Academy will provide personalized recommendations for what skills to practice next.”

College Board has also been developing an app, Daily Practice for the New SAT. The app gives students access to practice tests and feedback. 

“Daily SAT Practice for the New SAT is one way students with limited access to wired Internet service can connect to interactive, high-quality practice resources,” said Alcon-Heraux.

Digitalizing the ACT

The SAT isn't the only standardized test that's seen recent changes. After recently overtaking the SAT in popularity in 2012, with 1.8 million members of the class of 2014 taking the test, the ACT is trying to go digital.

In April 2014, the first online ACT tests were administered to around 4,000 students. 80 high schools in 23 states participated in the inaugural testing.

The digital version of the ACT became publicly available in select school districts in spring 2015. Those who took the test online are permitted to send scores to potential colleges. The ACT plans to expand the testing in the spring of 2016.

Finding relevance in the application process

These changes have been met with mixed reactions from those involved in the college admissions process. Elon University, however, is one college embracing the ACT and SAT changes and encouraging prospective students to adapt to change.

“The new version of the SAT is essentially incorporating the writing section into what is now called the critical reading section,” said Greg Zaiser, vice president of admissions and financial planning at Elon. “An essay will be optional. Elon will not require it.”

While the SAT and ACT are important factors when admissions officers are evaluating applications, Zaiser noted standardized testing is not the only important component.

“Lower SAT scores do not necessarily mean applicants are less qualified,” he said. “As we know, standardized tests can be challenging for many very bright students. We have used the SAT and ACT as one measure of selectivity since we have great demand for admission to Elon.”

Grades and extracurricular activities are also considered, according to Zaiser.

High school guidance counselors across the country have also had to deal with the changes to standardized tests like the ACT and SAT.

“We are recommending that the class of 2017 complete the optional essay on the redesigned SAT,” said Jodi Foxx, a guidance counselor at Charlotte Christian School. “Colleges and universities are still setting their policies regarding the optional essay, and we want our students to be prepared for success in the college admissions process.”

More than 200 institutions, including the University of Mississippi, Texas A&M University and Wake Forest University, are resisting standardized testing by making it an optional part of an application.

But some schools are going even further.

Removing standardized testing

Hampshire College is a small liberal arts school in Amherst, Massachusetts, with an enrollment of nearly 1,400 students. The college has stopped taking standardized test scores altogether.

In an official statement released by the college, President Jonathan Lash expressed his disdain for the current system.

“Teaching to a test becomes stifling for teachers and students, far from the inspiring, adaptive education which most benefits students,” Lash said. “Our greatly accelerating world needs graduates who are trained to address tough situations with innovation, ingenuity, entrepreneurship and a capacity for mobilizing collaboration and cooperation.”

He also said Hampshire College is more interested in the other aspects of a prospective student's application, such as grades and teacher recommendations.

As administrators at the school weighed the merits of dropping standardized testing from the application, they had a revelation.

“We said, ‘Wait a minute, we know these tests are biased against low-income students,’” Lash said.

In place of the optional SAT written section, the college asks applicants to respond to essay questions.

Moving forward

Regardless of how students feel about recent changes, they recognize standardized testing still carries significance.

“The ACT was a competitive test that I felt challenged me and pushed my sense of time management, stress management and academic skills,” Bozman said. “There’s no better feeling than knowing you did your best on a section.”