Sunday, April 26, 2015

What the New SAT Means for Teachers and Students

The news is out that the SAT is changing for 2016. Here are a few thoughts on what the announced changes will likely mean for those prepping for the new version of this popular college admissions exam.

The big, sweeping change to education over the past decade can be summarized by the term "content." E.D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge was the first major initiative to draw attention to evidence that college students were failing not because they couldn't read, but because they were clueless regarding the topics about which they were reading. That is, students must have background knowledge--content--in order to understand readings. This concept was spread throughout the United States with the introduction of the Common Core State Standards.

To borrow a phrase from internet speak, the new SAT seems to be following the adage that "content is king."


1. Evidence must be used to support answers.

It's highly doubtful that multiple-choice questions will disappear; these are just too cost-effective in terms of grading, to give up entirely. It is likely that certain questions will require explanations; for example, noting which paragraph within a passage the student used in answering a question.

2. Vocabulary will be more content-specific.

We can all still expect to see terms such as loquacious on the SAT. But because "content is king," we can also expect to see terms directly related to college-level coursework, e.g. variable, analysis, structure, research, hypothesis, paradigmalgorithm.

3. Fewer mathematics topics will be covered, in favor of more in-depth knowledge of each topic.

A good guess is that superficial knowledge of a topic like geometry will no longer be enough; that it will be better to have mastered geometry as much as possible, than to remember a smidgen from each of several mathematics courses.

4. Parts of the math section(s) will not allow calculators.

This may mean students re-learning basic mathematics skills that may have been forgotten, such as multiplication and long division.

5. Primary-source documents will be used.

Again, "content is king." The use of primary-source documents on the new SAT mimics the use of them on AP exams. College students are expected to cite their sources, and it is only natural that the SAT should test their ability to analyze documents and cite them.

6. No more penalties for wrong answers.

This alone should raise scores.

7. The essay is optional.

This is a tricky item to approach. Skipping the essay will depend upon the sort of college to which a student hopes to be accepted. Selective institutions will likely want to see written exam scores, whereas less selective colleges may not care so much. There's no word on how or whether skipping the written portion will affect the total SAT score. For now, the advise is to skip the written essay only if the student's writing skills are poor.

8. Scores go from a possible total of 2400 to 1600.

This seems to be a return to the simpler scoring of a couple of decades ago.

9. The test will be available online.

This does not mean that you'll be able to take the new SAT at home. Instead, like tests such as the GRE, testing centers will allow students the option of completing the test on a computer. Before selecting this option, a student should test himself or herself, to see which format works best. Anecdotally, it's been observed that a lot of students "bomb" computer tests because they click through them too quickly.


The good news for students is that removing penalties for incorrect answers will result in overall higher SAT scores. The jury is still out on whether skipping the written essay will be good or bad.

In general, like K-12 education, the general trend is toward content-specific knowledge. This means more non-fiction reading passages, which research shows require background knowledge to comprehend.

How to prep for the new SAT? In addition to reading the high school literature canon, students will want to read more nonfiction. This nonfiction should include books on science and history.

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