The SAT is undergoing a major redesign, ending its longstanding reliance on knowledge of obscure vocabulary words as well as the penalty for guessing wrong, and removing the essay requirement added in 2005. It is returning to the old 1,600-point scale and reinstating the bragging rights of generations of parents who found their high scores reduced to apparent mediocrity when an additional 800 points were tacked onto the exam taken by their children.

The redesign is intended to align the test with what students learn in high school – now, in most states, based on a set of standards known as the Common Core – eliminating the need for and benefits of expensive and time-consuming prep for a test that seemed to measure nothing so much as a student’s preparation for the test.

For students whose schooling might not give them the access to solid instruction and a meaningful education on those basics, the College Board, which administers the SAT, will form a partnership with the educational website Khan Academy to offer free online courses designed to help students to learn and prepare in the areas the test examines.

The changes are sweeping and the intent, largely attributed to David Coleman, president of the College Board, is no less broad. “What’s at stake, he often makes clear,” writes The New York Times’ Todd Balf in “The Story Behind the SAT Overhaul,” “is not just the fairness and usefulness of an exam but our nation’s ability to deliver opportunity for all, which, really, is about the soul of the country.”

That’s a whole lot riding on one test.

Of course, there has long been a whole lot riding on that one test, whether you look at it from a national or an individual perspective. Although more students took the ACT than the SAT in 2012, the SAT remains the lightning rod, possibly because, historically, the ACT was used more in the Midwest, while the SAT was required by more prestigious schools on the East and West coasts. Those perceptions are outdated but linger and give even more weight to the changes (and I write this as a former student from the Midwest, whose college required neither test of in-state applicants).

We place a strange importance on the SAT, one surely welcomed by the Educational Testing Service, which develops the SAT and which, while a nonprofit, nonetheless competes for market share with the ACT and relies on our national enthusiasm for standardized testing for its continued existence. At least in its current iteration, the SAT’s results are of little apparent use to colleges reviewing applying students; recent research on colleges that made supplying SAT or ACT scores optional (described in the New York Times Magazine) found that “students with good high school grades did well in college, even if they had weak SAT scores. But students with weaker high-school grades – even with strong SATs – did less well in college.”

If the new SAT succeeds in measuring what students actually learn in the classroom, scores and grades might be more closely aligned, but that still leaves open the question of what the test adds to the process. The SAT looks to gain additional relevance as a talent-finder, helping universities seek out high-achieving, low-income students who might not apply to selective schools.

In the process, it will help to cement the Common Core standards, which Coleman was integral in developing into the public education system as the path to college. (As will the ACT, which some states use as a test for high school performance.)

For a nation that has long resisted a nationalized education system, the result of this alliance among the College Board, colleges and curriculum is a convoluted, sideways approach to exactly that: a structure that teaches students a curriculum, tests them on their success, and funnels them into varied forms of higher education based on that success or the specific areas of that success.

The most laudable part of the enterprise, the use of the SAT (and, not incidentally, the ACT) to identify low-income, high-achieving students and encourage them to apply to selective schools, depends on our collective buy-in to the premise that these tests do measure something.

If we aren’t willing to pay individually for some students to be measured, and thus collectively for the measuring of those who cannot afford to pay, there won’t be enough measurements – of whatever is being measured – to compare.

It’s partly private, partly public and altogether a reflection of our national character: We don’t want to limit opportunity to those who can pay for it, but we don’t want to limit the opportunities of those who can pay for them, either.

Like the intent of the Common Core curriculum, which was designed to raise performance expectations for all students and ensure a more cohesive educational experience across classes and classrooms, the intent of the new SAT is laudable, but like the Common Core curriculum, it’s also riddled through with hidden motivations and paths to unintended consequences.

As a parent, I welcome any effort to put an end to the all-test-prep, all-the-time marathon that the junior year of high school seems to have become for affluent students, and I welcome, too, anything that might push us away from magnifying the edge that those affluent students already have on college admissions.

But that shouldn’t distract our attention from the College Board’s primary goal: to encourage those students – the same ones whose high school grades are more predictive of college success than their SAT scores – to keep shelling out their money and taking the test.

I’M SETTING out to buy a vape pipe. Or possibly a hookah pen, or an e-hookah.

I don’t really know.

I don’t really know what any of those things is, exactly. Until I read Matt Richtel’s “E-Cigarettes, by Other Names, Lure Young and Worry Experts” in The New York Times, I was still stuck on the name e-cigarettes, and until Randye Hoder’s Motherlode essay, “E-Cigarette Marketers Have an Eye on Teens,” I had filed them away mentally under the tag “gross things people use to quit smoking.”

I’ve joined Hoder in realizing that e-cigarettes are everywhere, and now I know that even the name I’m calling the devices by, let alone my perception of them, is hopelessly outdated. I would be fine with that – I have no desire to partake of peach-flavored vapor, or any other vapor, via a device of any name or shape – except that it’s clear that I need to do the parent-thing here: the “talk to your children about” whatever it is we’re talking about. I’m not even certain I know the right verb.

My children, and maybe yours, have grown up in a world in which no one smokes. Cigarettes are seen only when we travel, or looking through the windows into other cars, and they know the party line on them. They’re “gross” and “stinky.”

An e-cigarette might ring the same bells, but there is no such common consensus on a “vape pipe” or a hookah. There isn’t even a consensus on whether or not there should be a consensus.

I have no idea what any of my children would do if a friend presented them with such a thing, in Grape Apple flavor. I don’t even know exactly what they’d be asked to do by the friend – inhale?

I imagine it’s the same process as smoking a cigarette (and although I’ve never been a smoker, I’ve certainly done that). But the truth is, I don’t know. I don’t even know if the nicotine-free version (what I’ll be setting out to get) presents any dangers other than those under the classic gateway drug theory.

In fact, I don’t even know how dangerous nicotine itself (minus the cigarette delivery system) is, compared with other legal-but-not-exactly-good-for-you options. It’s not that I can’t find those things out. It’s that right now, if one of my kids asked, I wouldn’t know where to begin.

“Vaping” reminds me of the clove cigarettes from my high school days, and I am not so old that I can’t see the appeal, especially if it’s so clearly outside the adult comfort zone.

So instead of rushing into panic mode, I’m going to get a pipe, do some research, and figure out exactly what it is that I’m supposed to be worried about before I find myself debating my future teenage child with only the most tenuous haze of information.

And, of course, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Feel free to laugh at my ignorance, as I’m sure whatever retail employee gets saddled with me will. This isn’t mall country, so I won’t be heading into some nice, clean, brightly lit spot, but the local head shop, also known for its back room of sex toys and for dabbling in fake marijuana sales. Maybe I should take my oldest child with me. I can’t imagine anything that would make him less inclined to go back.

Contact KJ Dell-Antonia at:

kj.dellantonia@nytimes.com