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SAT testing to make essay optional

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WASHINGTON — Essay optional. No penalties for wrong answers. The SAT college entrance exam is undergoing sweeping revisions.

Changes in the annual test that millions of students take will also do away with some vocabulary words such as "prevaricator" and "sagacious" in favor of words more commonly used in school and on the job.

College Board officials said Wednesday the update — the first since 2005 — is needed to make the exam better representative of what students study in high school and the skills they need to succeed in college and afterward. The test should offer "worthy challenges, not artificial obstacles," said College Board President David Coleman at an event in Austin, Texas.

The new exam will be rolled out in 2016, so this year's ninth graders will be the first to take it, in their junior year. The new SAT will continue to test reading, writing and math skills, with an emphasis on analysis. Scoring will return to a 1,600-point scale last used in 2004, with a separate score for the optional essay.

For the first time, students will have the option of taking the test on computers.

Once the predominant college admissions exam, the SAT in recent years has been overtaken in popularity by the competing ACT, which has long been considered more curriculum based. The ACT offers an optional essay and announced last year it would begin making computer-based testing available in 2015.

One of the biggest changes in the SAT is that the extra penalty for wrong answers, which discouraged guessing, will be eliminated. And some vocabulary words will be replaced with words such as "synthesis" and "empirical" that are used more widely in classrooms and in work settings.

Coleman said many students who are terrified they will be tested on lots of SAT words currently have one recourse: drilling with flashcards. He said educators know that flashcards are not the best way to build real word knowledge that lasts, but "when the SAT rolls around they become the royal road. Students stop reading and start flipping."

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