How is the New SAT Different?

In this New York Times Education Life article, Eric Hoover (a writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education) reports on the changes in the revised SAT that will debut in March 2016. The new test, which now more closely resembles the ACT, strives to align with high-school curriculums and draws heavily on the Common Core State Standards. It will have two sections (the writing test is now optional):

  • Evidence-Based Reading and Writing
  • Mathematics

Each section will be scored on a 200-800 scale, with no penalty for guessing and four rather than five answer choices for each question. There will be less emphasis on obscure words and students won’t be asked to complete sentences. Instead, they’ll have to derive the meaning of words with multiple meanings from the context in which they are used. There’s also more emphasis on evidence and citing specific examples; students won’t be able to get by just with deft writing.

What’s the best way for students to prepare for the new tests? For starters, by reading widely in a variety of texts, especially nonfiction. “Habitual reading can also help on the writing section, which will demand prolonged concentration,” says Hoover. “To answer questions about grammar, punctuation, and usage, students will have to wade through extended passages relating to history, humanities, and science.” In general, there’s a lot more reading involved. “If you don’t read well and happily,” says test-prep expert Aaron Golumbfskie, “this test isn’t going to be your friend.” The mathematics test also has lots of reading, with more word problems, multi-step problems, and real-life applications. In terms of content, the math test includes more statistics and less geometry, and there’s a section where students will have to solve problems without a calculator.

The optional writing section has prompts similar to those in AP English, asking for a critical response to a specific argument. For example, students might be asked to read part of a 1967 speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. and explain how he used evidence, reasoning, and/or stylistic elements to support his argument about the Vietnam War.

What hasn’t changed is the SAT’s length, totaling 3 hours and 50 minutes with the optional writing section. “Besides measuring what students have learned,” says Hoover, “it will measure how they perform under pressure in a high-stakes situation – just like the old model.” He adds that despite the College Board’s promises that there are “no more mysteries,” there are still plenty of “quirks and trap doors” designed to spread students out on a bell-shaped curve, which is what selective colleges want.

Is the new SAT harder than the old one? Not in substance, say several experts, but the amount of reading and analysis will definitely prove challenging for students who haven’t had effective teaching and done extensive reading. “There’s a new body style on the Chevrolet,” says Jay Rosner of the Princeton Review Foundation, “but it has zero to do with performance – the engine’s the same. It’s going to generate the same hierarchy of scores that exists now.”

“Inside the New SAT” by Eric Hoover in The New York Times Education Life, November 1, 2015,