April 17, 2014
For immediate release:
Yesterday, the College Board released a 208 page document broadly outlining what the new SAT will look like in 2016. The document spent about half its length justifying the changes with a range of studies and surveys and the other half detailing what each section of the test should look like. Tellingly, the changes are justified by the College Board as addressing the perceived failure of American high schools to adequately prepare students for collegiate-level work. How changing the SAT will help address this failing at the teaching level isn’t entirely clear, but the overall tenor of the change it to make the test more “real world” and less esoteric in order to do a better job of predicting university success – one of the core stated aims of the test. Rather than get tied up overly with a debate on the failure of education in the United States and the specific rationales for the changes, we will focus here on what the basic changes are – and how they will directly impact the performance of students in Singapore in the three different pre-university education systems: American High School (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), and Cambridge O level/A level/Integrated Program (A Level).
When and What:
The changes will come into effect with the May 2016 test date. This means that the new test will only directly impact students looking to start university in September of 2017 – high school class of 2017 for those on the North American school year. There will be a certain amount of overlap of scores between the new and old test when the time comes and College Board will publish equivalency tables to aid university advisors and college admissions departments in comparing scores on the two tests.
The biggest change is a reversion to the 400-1600 scoring scale from the current 600-2400. The old Reading and Writing sections are being effectively merged to one section now called Evidence-Based Reading and Writing. The math will remain with some key changes (see below) and the essay portion will now be optional. The MCQ portion will now have 4 options instead of 5 and students will no longer lose points from wrong answers.
Evidence Based Reading and Writing:
The focus on this section will turn slightly away from vocabulary and grammatical mastery towards reading for context and analysis of rhetorical structure. All of the questions are passage-based with the elimination of sentence completion and the familiar grammar MCQ of the old Writing portion. The passages will cover a range of different disciplines each test and also have a range in perceived difficulty from 9th grade equivalent up to those deemed college-level. The vocabulary-based questions will make up about 20% of the total but all of them will be what we call “vocab-in-context” and are intended to steer away from the traditional esoteric “SAT words” and more towards words with more nuances of meaning – an example give was the different meanings of the word “dedicate” as used by Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address. The grammar questions are akin to the old paragraph improvement questions and suspiciously similar to those questions on the ACT – with students being asked to improve the grammar of selected sections of passages as well as making changes to improve the rhetorical and logical flow.
Students who do four years of high school English should have no problem with the passages and the focus of questions based on context rather than isolation may benefit students who have a good ear for grammar but don’t know the specific rules. Students who do a science/math heavy course mix in the IB will likely find this section a bit trying. Of course, all students who are bookish and read regularly should excel at this section – as such students normally excel in most things academic.
The minority of students who are doing Literature will be well-equipped with the reading skills and knowledge to do well on this section. As the passages will also include history and the social sciences (as well as the hard sciences), students with a background in economics or history will be comfortable with the type of passages they are likely to see. However, students in the pure science stream who do not pursue an active reading habit will generally have difficulty as the level of English in the passages will often be beyond what they encountered in O Levels and their science and math courses wouldn’t expose them to this sort of writing. The vocabulary questions will prove difficult as well as simply memorizing long word lists won’t be nearly as effective as the questions are going to focus on nuance of meaning gleaned from context rather than a strict dictionary definition.
The College Board has finally gotten wise to the prevalent practice in Asia of memorizing canned essays and then just tweaking the intro and conclusion to fit vague prompts. Rather than ask a student’s opinion on something, students will now be asked to analyze the argument of a persuasive passage. Over 55 minutes at end of the test, rather than 25 minutes at the beginning, test takers will be asked to comment on the efficacy of the author’s argument with a special focus on the rhetorical devices used to fully flesh out an argument. Students will have to not only fully understand rather nuanced, high-level passages, but will also have to demonstrate a mastery of commentary that borders on literary criticism. The essay will be scored by English teachers in the States and this score will be reported separately, not aggregated with the Writing score as is the current practice.
While not required for all test takers, the essay will probably be mandated by most competitive universities. The essays will likely be able to be viewed by admissions committees and will provide an unvarnished view of the applicant’s writing ability. This will at least partially address the problem of students seeking undue (and inappropriate) help in “editing” their admissions essays.
Students in AP Literature or Higher Level IB Literature are going to excel in the essay. Students who aren’t strong readers will have problems in crafting something coherent as they will have issues in fully understanding the passage to be analyzed. The longer time will allow for more thought, and that will be expected to be transmitted to deeper insights on an essay that will be outside of the 4 to 5 paragraph norm.
As with the Reading and Writing portion, students who are doing A level Literature will be entirely comfortable with this task as it mirrors what they would have been working on. Those in the science stream will be seriously challenged by this task as it will be entirely foreign to what they have been working on in school and involves thought and deep analysis on the rhetorical level.
The new math section will not be nearly as much of a change compared to the Reading and Writing. There will be one shorter section where students will not be allowed a calculator, and a longer section where students will be encouraged to use one. The SAT is largely dispensing with the logic and game-type questions in favor of more straightforward math questions with a turn back towards algebra and real-world word problems with concepts such as rates and ratios at the fore. The breadth of the concepts tested is being reduced, but the depth of presumed knowledge is being deepened with an introduction of quadratic equations and trigonometry to the test. Rather than simply solve equations for “x”, students will be asked to generate an equation or even a system of equations which would describe and match a real world situation of applied math. The test taking techniques of Backsolving or Plugging In will still have some efficacy, but not as much as on the current test, though reducing the answer choices to 4 from 5 makes things easier on eliminating obviously wrong answers. Data analysis will get much more emphasis with 28% of the questions involving charts or graphs with real data from scientific studies.
Good math students will not have trouble with this section. The concepts are nothing beyond what is taught in a normal 11th grade math class and the elimination of the “weird SAT” math questions now on the test mean that students who are good at solving equations and are marginally numerate won’t have issues. For weaker math students, this section will be more challenging than the current math section. In particular, many students are completely lost without a calculator and the calculator-free section will have many shaking in fright. Students will have to re-master concepts like mixed numerals, long division, and converting fractions to decimals – tasks long since relegated to their friend from Texas Instruments.
Math and science stream students will excel on this section. Even more so than the old math section, the new focus on more straightforward math with some science-like problem solving will mirror their normal curriculum. For the Arts stream students, there are no concepts beyond what is taught in standard O Level math so our recommendation would be to take the test in year one instead of year two in JC while math skills are still relatively fresh.
Our thoughts above on the new test should be taken with a large dollop of salt as it is based on the very incomplete data now available from the College Board. Once a full test is released we will be able to comment more fully. The basic summary is that good students will do just fine on the new test and don’t have much to fear, while students in a math and science stream will probably struggle mightily in the non-math portion of the test. We at Testtakers will be fully ready for the advent of the new test. Many of the changes seem to have been motivated by a desire to blunt the effectiveness of SAT preparation, but the planned provision of free SAT prep with www.khanacademy.org seems to contradict that claim. We love Khan, but online learning can only be so effective and there is no replacement for a good teacher in a classroom with excellent materials.
About the author:
Jeremy Craig is the founder and managing director of Testtakers Singapore. He has been teaching SAT preparation since 1993 and has taught nearly 10,000 students over that time. Testtakers is the leading SAT preparation provider in Singapore and works with most of the leading international schools in Singapore and several more in the ASEAN region.