High school students preparing to take the SAT will face a whole new landscape. In 2016, the College Board, maker of the SAT, rolled out some of the biggest content changes in the exam’s history. These revisions were designed to better reflect what high school students actually learn and the knowledge they’ll need in college, but initial feedback is mixed. Here’s what students, along with their school counselors and teachers, can learn from the first batch of new SAT test-takers.
The new SAT: changes to scoring
One of the biggest changes to SAT scoring is that test takers are no longer penalized for guessing. Previously, students would lose points if they got the wrong answer, which meant that making an educated guess could result in a lower score. However, now the SAT, much like the ACT, doesn’t take away points for getting questions wrong. Also similar to the ACT, the SAT now only has four possible answers instead of five.
While the old test was scored from three sections — math, reading and writing — the new SAT is scored in two sections, math and evidence-based reading and writing. The scores for each section remain the same, between 200 and 800, with a total possible score of 1600, down from 2400 on the old format.
Changes to SAT content sections
While some portions of the SAT were revamped, several sections were removed entirely. Students no longer have to worry about sentence completions, and the once-mandatory essay portion is now optional, although required by many university admissions departments. All sections are longer and more complex than they were, and require students to use more critical thinking and reasoning skills.
Math, reading, writing questions are more complex
The math portion of the new SAT requires higher-level mathematical reasoning. Student understanding of math application is measured with both multiple-choice and grid-in questions. The redesign emphasizes three areas of math that are most relevant to college readiness and numbers-related areas of study. These are:
- Basic algebra concepts with questions on creating and solving linear equations
- Data analysis and problem-solving exercises such as finding rates and ratios
- Questions on algebra II, pre-calculus and calculus concepts, an area the College Board refers to as “Passport to Advanced Math”
The content of the reading, writing and language sections are also more detailed. Students are responsible for figuring out complex vocabulary based on the in-text reading and expected to know multiple definitions for each word. Test-takers must also answer questions on punctuation from in-text sources.
What do higher average scores mean for SAT takers?
Before the test was changed, the average combined score from three sections was 1500. This led many to believe that the average score of the new test would be around 1000, but the average score from the first batch was roughly 1090. Due to the change in average, the College Board is asking university admissions officers to compare old and new scores with formulas to ensure all applicants are treated equally.
After years of scores that hadn’t changed, the first batch of students to take the revamped SAT received significantly higher results. Experts aren’t sure if this reflects an easier exam, or if the test is a more accurate measure of high school learning. Initial surveys of test-takers don’t provide a clear answer to the question.
Does the new SAT meet its goal of representing what students learn in high school?
In the College Board’s survey of 8,000 students who took the new SAT, 71 percent said the “test reflected what they’re learning in school.” However, a Kaplan Test Prep survey of 500 students returned a different result to the same question:
- “Very much so”: 16 percent
- “Somewhat”: 56 percent
- “Not too much”: 23 percent
- “Not at all”: 5 percent
Students respond to survey questions about the SAT’s new format, relevant knowledge and challenge level
In the College Board survey, an overwhelming 80 percent of students felt that they would use vocabulary words that appeared on the test later in life, an increase from 55 percent of students who took the previous test. Additionally, students in this survey preferred the new test over the old format by a 6-1 margin.
In terms of how challenging students found the new SAT, the Kaplan survey also reported the following:
- 30 percent of respondents thought the exam was “more difficult”
- 48 percent said the level of difficulty was what they expected
- 22 said the test was easier than they’d thought it would be
Educator concerns about revisions to the SAT
According to CNN, educator concerns about the SAT changes centered around the reading and math sections being more text-dense than previous versions. This could affect scores of students from underserved populations or for whom English isn’t a first language. After the revamped exam’s first round of scores were reported, a critic interviewed by The Atlantic speculated that the College Board intentionally inflated SAT scoring to compete with the ACT, the more popular college-entrance exam.
Will the new SAT stand the test of time?
Only time will tell if scores on the new SAT and its predecessor will be comparable or whether the revamped content will increase its popularity. Until then, educators can feel encouraged by the test’s increased emphasis on critical thinking, relevant knowledge and evidence-based reading and writing skills.
Caitrin Blake has a BA in English and Sociology from the University of Vermont and a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Colorado Denver. She teaches composition at Arapahoe Community College.Learn More: Click to view related resources.
- "Key Content Changes ," The College Board