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In March of 2016, the CollegeBoard (which administers the SAT and PSAT), kicked off the new SAT, which is a major change from the old one which had been in use for a decade. There were many motivations for the change. The old SAT favored students with the resources to pay for test preparation, and disadvantaged students from underprivileged backgrounds. The writing sections of the old SAT were unpopular, and many colleges didn’t read the essays. The grading scale was complex and so many more students started taking the ACT, which became more popular than the SAT.
The redesign was a long time in the works, and the CollegeBoard says the changes are based on research that “identifies the skills and knowledge that are needed for college success.”
The new SAT has now been used for almost a year, and there’s still not much understanding about how parents and students should best adapt. So here is a summary for parents and students.
- The new SAT is much more similar to the ACT than was the old SAT. The Reading and Writing sections have been combined into a single section, called Evidence-Based Reading and Writing. There is a Math section, and an optional Essay section.
- Scores on the new SAT range from 400-1,600, rather than from 600-2,400. To compare old scores and new scores, the CollegeBoard has published a “concordance:” a set of tables that map old scores to new scores (or vice versa). For help with this, you can contact many organizations including LifeLaunchr.
- Khan Academy has excellent free online resources to help prepare for the new SAT. If you want more specific preparation, there are many resources both online and in your neighborhood.
- The new SAT tests integrated knowledge and skills more than it tests general reasoning and specific vocabulary knowledge.
- There is no penalty for guessing on the new test.
- Each multiple-choice question now has only four choices (rather than five), so there are fewer obviously incorrect answers, which makes guessing harder.
- The new SAT has fewer “trick” questions than the old one. The old SAT had many questions that were worded in a way that was intentionally complex. The new SAT tests knowledge of more material, but the questions are worded in a more straightforward way.
The New SAT: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing
The English language reading sections on the new SAT are all based on passages. So there aren’t straightforward vocabulary-based questions that test precise knowledge of the meaning of obscure words (no more “SAT Words”). Instead there is an emphasis on understanding the meaning of words in context (“the meaning of words in extended contexts and on how word choice shapes meaning, tone, and impact,” to quote from the College Board’s summary of the differences between the two tests). There is also an emphasis on understanding evidence and on scientific reasoning and an understanding of data. The new SAT will include one passage on US and World History, one on History or Social Studies, and two on Science.
- Read extensively. Sites like the New York Times are an excellent source of reading material of the type tested on the SAT. They will help build subject matter familiarity as well as the ability to understand complex material.
- Be aware of your personal beliefs, and don’t let them interfere with your comprehension and analysis. The material on the new SAT is based on real-world situations, so sometimes your personal beliefs might guide you to a different answer than the one the passage would. Read closely, and look for the answer in the passage.
- Practice reading graphs. There will be questions that are based on graphs provided on the test. You don’t have to know the science behind the graph, but you do need to know how to read a graph correctly and quickly.
The new SAT’s writing sections focus more on logical ideas and their expression, and on grammar rules like punctuation and the usage of words in common parlance. There’s less emphasis on obscure grammatical rules like modifiers and subject-verb agreement.
All the writing questions are based on passages, and the questions refer to specific sentences within the paragraph. So being able to read the passage quickly, grasp its meaning and logic, and answer questions is important.
- Focus on reading the passage completely first, since some questions will require you to understand the overall logic of the passage to answer them.
- Learn and be familiar with the rules of punctuation, like the use of commas, colons, and semicolons.
The New SAT: Mathematics
The math section of the new test hasn’t changed a whole lot from the old SAT. There are some important changes, though:
- Some questions ban the use of a calculator. Make sure you pay attention to this.
- There are more realistic scenarios as prompts for questions. Some of the questions require multiple steps.
- There is less emphasis on geometry and trigonometry, and more on algebra and data analysis.
- Fewer convoluted questions that test concepts not taught in school.
- Drill your skills, especially in algebra and data analysis. Do lots of problems
- Work on word problems with complex, multi-step scenarios.
The New SAT: Essay
The new essay section is optional. What does that mean? It means unless you’re applying to schools (or planning to apply to schools) that require the essay, don’t take this section of the test. You’ve got lots of tests to take in high school. Adding more unnecessary tests doesn’t make sense.
It’s also completely different than the old essay, in several ways. The old essay test paid no attention to factual inaccuracies. You could say that the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1976, or that World War II ended in 2045, and there would be no points deducted. It was based on a theoretical prompt, and on answering it with supporting evidence. But it allowed only 25 minutes.
The new essay is much more straightforward. It is based on reading a passage and then analyzing it to see how the author makes an argument and supports it (or not) with evidence. So it’s not based on a personal opinion, but rather on the skill of close-reading.
- Practice writing standard 5 paragraph essays in this format, based on passages you read.
- Focus on understanding the author’s argument:
- Reasoning: What is the chain of logic behind the claim?
- Evidence: Focus on evidence the author cites. Don’t make up facts. Understand the different types of evidence used in an argument: statements from authority figures, survey data, anecdotal evidence.
- Rhetorical devices: What kinds of writing techniques (e.g., emotional appeals, ad hominem attacks) does the author use?
The new SAT’s rollout has been accompanied by some trials and tribulations for parents, students, counselors, and teachers. But now that almost a year is past, the process should get a lot smoother. There are good resources available to prepare, so there’s no reason to fear the new test!