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The New SAT: What to Expect

In the spring of 2016, the College Board will launch the redesigned SAT. What will change? The short answer is that the new SAT will look more like the ACT—no guessing penalty, less vocabulary, more charts and graphs. There’s more to it than that, but with the reboot still in progress, the College Board isn’t saying much. The details are hazy, but according to the College Board website, there will be eight key changes. Of course, these summaries are like a lot of SAT problems—convoluted and confusing. Here they are in plain English.

1. Vocabulary: The new SAT will scrap questions about obscure vocabulary words like obsequious and magnanimity and instead ask students to identify the meanings of more ordinary words in context. For example, the word “acute” can mean “sharp,” “intense,” or “clever,” depending on the context. In fact, the current SAT already has these “vocabulary in context” questions on the passage-based portion of the Critical Reading section.

2. Evidence-Based Sections: The new SAT will combine the Reading and Writing portions into a single “evidence based” test. Here’s what that means:

Reading: Some questions will require students to select a sentence from the passage that best supports their answer to the previous question. For example, question #7 might ask, “How does Daisy feel about Tom?” And #8 might ask, “Which of the following sentences from the passage best supports your answer to question #7?” Some passages will also be paired with infographics.

Writing: Much like on the ACT English test, students will analyze multi-paragraph passages rather than focusing stand-alone sentences (like on the current SAT). This section will also require students to edit passages so that they accurately convey information from infographics.


3. Essay Analyzing a Source: This new essay will also be evidence-based. Students will read a source document and write an essay explaining how the author constructs his or her argument. This sounds much more difficult than the current essay format. The idea is to make the SAT essay more like college essays.

The essay will be optional (like on the ACT), but some colleges will require it. In other words, it’s only optional if the colleges you are applying to don’t require it. Read your prospective colleges’ admissions requirements carefully. If you’re applying to Yale, and Yale requires the essay, then for you the essay is required.


4. Math that Matters: The new math section will focus on three areas: Problem Solving and Data Analysis (using ratios, percents, and proportions to solve problems in science, social science, and career contexts), The Heart of Algebra (linear equations and systems, abstract thinking), and Passport to Advanced Math (manipulation of complex equations—the College Board is pretty vague on this one).

In addition to these areas, some problems will test geometry and trigonometry skills “relevant to colleges and careers.” (Note: the current SAT does not have any trig function—sine, cosine, tangent—questions.)

real world
5. Problems Grounded in Real World Contexts: The primary focus of the redesign is to make the SAT less abstract and more practical—in other words, more like the ACT. The Reading/Writing section may have fiction passages, but it seems the focus will be on non-fiction passages from the humanities, hard sciences, social sciences, and “career contexts.” On the Math section, students will be presented with several charts and graphs relating to some real-world scenario (e.g. television-viewing statistics or fluctuations in the price of soybeans) and asked several questions requiring them to integrate information from these various sources.
6. Analysis in Science and History/Social Studies: The new SAT will require students to “apply their reading, writing, language, and math skills to answer questions in science, history, and social studies contexts.” Basically, it sounds like the Reading/Writing and Math sections will be more integrated than on the current SAT (more reading on the Math section, and more charts and graphs on the Reading/Writing section). Students will also be asked to revise texts to make them consistent with infographics related to “recent discoveries, political developments, global events, and health and environmental issues.” These kinds of infographics are common in National Geographic Magazine.
7. Founding Documents and the Great Global Conversation: Every new SAT will contain excerpts from U.S. founding documents (e.g. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers) and documents from “the great global conversation,” that is, politically-themed documents by authors like Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglas, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Henry David Thoreau, and Martin Luther King Jr. The College Board website specifically mentions Mary Wollstonecraft, Edmund Burke, and Mohandas Gandhi. The founding documents as well as texts by all these authors are available for free online. If you want to start studying for the new SAT now, start reading these texts—along with notes.
no penalty

8. No Penalty for Wrong Answers: On the current SAT, you lose one-quarter point for every wrong answer. Taking away the guessing penalty makes the test easier because students won’t ever have to decide when to guess. If a wrong answer gets you the same result as leaving the question blank, then guessing is a no-brainer. You might as well guess and move on to the next question; there’s nothing to lose. Decision making is mentally and emotionally taxing. Taking a little stress off students should actually make it easier to get a more accurate assessment of their performance on the test material.

The College Board will release a full-length practice test in March of 2015. Until then, students should make sure their basic math and reading skills are up to par. Since the new SAT will be more like the current ACT, and since practically every university will accept either test, now is a great time to study for the ACT. If your ACT score is good enough, you probably won’t even need to take the new SAT, but if you do, the skills you develop studying for the ACT should transfer.