What Do the SAT Changes Mean?

Say goodbye to vocabulary flash cards and hello to the optional essay section.

When the New York Times reported on the forthcoming changes to the SAT starting in the spring of 2016, it summarized the revamp with the following bullet points. Allow me the opportunity to analyze each:

Instead of arcane “SAT words” (“depreciatory,” “membranous”), the vocabulary definitions on the new exam will be those of words commonly used in college courses, such as “synthesis” and “empirical.”

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Good riddance to the vocabulary section! This component of the test – which comprised just under 30 percent of the Critical Reading section and just over 10 percent of the questions on the entire SAT – was stressed over by students and families a disproportionate amount. Students spent countless hours pouring over stacks of flash cards, learning hundreds of words.

There is certainly nothing wrong with expanding one’s vocabulary, but “SAT words” intimidated unnecessarily and served no practical purpose beyond the SAT. The ACT has always had this right – every word presented in the English and Reading sections of that college entrance exam can be easily understood with a normal high school vocabulary.

The essay, required since 2005, will become optional. Those who choose to write an essay will be asked to read a passage and analyze the ways its author used evidence, reasoning and stylistic elements to build an argument.

College Board has repeatedly asserted that one of its goals in revamping the SAT is to close the gap between students of different family incomes. Making the essay optional directly contradicts this goal.

The ACT has long adopted an essay-optional practice, and I have struggled to convey to students why exactly this policy exists. Clearly, it reflects poorly on students who opt out of writing an essay – so why give the option?

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In addition to serving students in the Greater Philadelphia suburbs, my company has worked with hundreds of underprivileged students through various programs and schools on ACT test prep; based on our conversations about the essay optional portion, one thing is clear: the students who will most likely opt out are those coming from families with lower incomes – students who are not confident in their writing skills, who are intimidated by the test, who do not have the resources to know how to approach the essay.

The guessing penalty, in which points are deducted for incorrect answers, will be eliminated.

Knowing how to intelligently guess on the SAT was an entire strategy unto itself, so eliminating the guessing penalty will close the income gap. But it also does something else: serve as yet another example of mimicking what the ACT has already done for decades.

The timing is no coincidence for this massive overhaul of the SAT – the second dramatic change in the past ten years. Over the past two years, the ACT has – for the first time ever – overtaken the SAT as the most taken college entrance exam among students in the United States.

College Board may be a non-profit, but it has often been criticized for not conducting business in such a manner. These changes were driven by money – not the student’s best interest.

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The overall scoring will return to the old 1,600-point scale, based on a top score of 800 in reading and math. The essay will have a separate score.

The Writing section – added less then a decade ago – was the easiest to master with test preparation of any section on both the SAT and ACT. The concepts it focused on were limited in scope, and as a result many colleges continued to disregard this section in evaluating SAT scores even almost a decade after its inception.

Math questions will focus on three areas: linear equations; complex equations or functions; and ratios, percentages and proportional reasoning. Calculators will be permitted on only part of the math section.

To the areas of focus: in my years of preparing students for the SAT, these content areas always seem to give students the most trouble. They are also the most practical areas of mathematics tested – far more so than geometry, which seems to be omitted.

The real question is this: how will the SAT present these questions to students? Right now, it is not the content, but the presentation of questions, that makes them easy to prep for. So as the SAT tries to make itself into a more ‘content-based’ exam, this will ultimately be the deciding factor in if the Math section has truly been changed.

As to the restricted use of calculators: nothing wrong with this! Students who do not know how to properly use the calculator but rely heavily on it are often prone to silly mistakes. This also should reward students who truly understand mathematical concepts.

Every exam will include, in the reading and writing section, source documents from a broad range of disciplines, including science and social studies, and on some questions, students will be asked to select the quotation from the text that supports the answer they have chosen.

This appears to be an excellent revamp in the Reading section. Hopefully the SAT presents students with passages that are more engaging and less esoteric.

Every exam will include a reading passage either from one of the nation’s “founding documents,” such as the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights, or from one of the important discussions of such texts, such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”

This is yet another confounding decision. It is outstanding to eliminate vocabulary words, but to replace them with arcane documents from American history seems nonsensical. Deciphering passages from the 17th and 18th century can be an overwhelming task. Furthermore, how does this penalize students who take the SAT coming from living abroad, or students whose schools have had to cut the budgets for American history classes?

Time will tell if these changes are for the better, but what is abundantly clear is this: the SAT will look dramatically different come the spring of 2016.

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