The SAT, the country's best-known college admissions test, is getting a major overhaul that drops the required essay section it added just eight years ago and restores the top score to the iconic 1600.

Beginning in 2016, the College Board announced Wednesday, the test will be condensed to two sections from its current three, though an essay writing test will still be offered as an option.

The shifts are part of a wider effort to better align the exam with what students learn in high school and will need in college -- and away from the advantages they may gain from expensive private tutoring, officials said. But the announcement surprised high school students and school officials in the Bay Area and around the nation, and it seemed to some to place less importance on writing.

Other changes were widely applauded: For example, the revised sections in reading will drop their most obscure vocabulary words and instead "focus on words students will use over and over again," said College Board President David Coleman, whose organization owns the exam. The math problems will be less theoretical and more linked to real-life questions.

"While we build on the best of the past, we commit today that the redesigned SAT will be more focused and useful, more clear and open than ever before," Coleman said at a meeting in Austin, Texas, that was broadcast over the Internet.

Ivar Laanen, 17, a senior at Northgate High in Walnut Creek, said even though he takes honors English and reads high-quality literature, he was frustrated when he saw many vocabulary words on the SAT that he had never heard of. He also said the math questions were so broad that he didn't feel well-prepared to answer them.

But Kevin Skelly, superintendent of the Palo Alto school district, said he hoped the decision to make the writing test optional didn't signal a move away from writing.

"Clearly," he said, "it's one of the most important skills."

While the test sponsors long had argued that coaching does not help students significantly, Coleman acknowledged that many people believe students who can afford tutoring have an advantage.

To help address that issue, the College Board is starting a partnership with the online Khan Academy to offer a free series of practice exams and videos about good test-taking practices. The Silicon Valley-based Khan Academy has become one of the most popular online-education sites, particularly in its math offerings.

Skelly applauded the College Board for "doing anything it can to not make scoring well on the SAT a function of how wealthy a person is."

University of California admissions officers are encouraged by what they have learned about the changes to the SAT, which is one of 14 elements considered in a student's application, said UC spokeswoman Dianne Klein. She said the redesign won't dumb down the test but rather make it more relevant and accessible.

"From what we know about the differences, such as the partnership with the Khan Academy, that's all to the good," she said. It remains to be seen whether UC will require the now "optional" essay. Faculty leaders in the system's Academic Senate, which sets admissions criteria, will decide that.

Linda Clark, college and career adviser at Northgate High, said she was thrilled with the changes, especially the free test prep.

"That is fabulous," she said. "Some of them are very good, but a lot of the prep companies try to intimidate people into thinking you need to start when you're in eighth grade, and I think it has led to some of the mania we have around testing." Laanen, who studied for the SAT using a book given to him by a family friend, said the Khan Academy could offer students a welcome alternative to expensive test prep classes.

"I think that's brilliant," he said. "I think everyone should have the equal opportunity to be prepared for the SAT test."

Analysts said the steps arise from both the College Board's self-interest and public interest.

Two years ago, the rival ACT -- which most colleges also accept -- surpassed the SAT in the number of test takers across the nation. About 1.6 million students took the SAT last year, and more than 1.7 million the ACT, with some taking both as insurance.

In some ways, the new SAT will become more like the ACT, which has an optional writing section that many colleges require. The SAT also will switch to the ACT model of grading, in which only correct answers are counted and students are not dinged for wrong ones. The new-old top SAT score of 1600 is down from the 2400 that has been in place since the essay was added in 2005; the ACT uses a 36-point scale.

The College Board has faced criticism for many years that the SAT is not fair to some low-income and minority students and that high school grades are a much better predictor of how well an applicant will do in college.

The new exam appears to be a more populist version, more connected to the new federal Common Core teaching standards. And if students decide to skip the essay, they will take a less time-consuming exam: three hours instead of the current three hours and 45 minutes.

However, some experts said making the essay optional sends a bad and perplexing message.

"I'm not sure it is a good signal to kids in schools about the importance of writing," said Katy Murphy, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and director of college counseling at Bellarmine College Preparatory high school in San Jose.

The change also will confuse high school seniors who may not have access to good counseling and may be unsure how to fulfill testing requirements that will vary among colleges, she said.

In one area, the College Board will be making it potentially more difficult for students. Now test takers are allowed to use calculators throughout the math questions. But starting in two years, calculators will be banned during some of the math testing to better assess students' "understanding, fluency and technique," the announcement said. Another change will be that the SAT will start to be offered online as well as in the traditional paper form.

Staff writers Katy Murphy, Sharon Noguchi and Theresa Harrington contributed to this report.