Big changes coming to the SAT; new test debuts in March

Posted February 12, 2016

— High school students planning to take the SAT this March can expect some major changes. The redesigned college admission test is being called "one of the greatest overhauls of the exam in its almost 100-year history," according to PrepMatters, a national test preparation company.

Student testing / SAT test / ACT test / EOG test generic QUIZ: 5 sample math questions from the new SAT

To help explain the changes, WRAL News spoke with Ned Johnson, PrepMatters' founder and author of "Conquering the SAT" and Jaslee Carayol, a spokeswoman for The College Board, which administers the SAT. Below, Johnson offers tips to help students prepare for the test.

Nine changes coming to the SAT

1) Different scoring
The new SAT is going back to the old 1600 scale (400-1600) and doing away with the 2400 scale (600-2400). The difference is students can now score up to 800 on the reading/writing section and up to 800 on the math section. The essay will be scored separately.

Colleges will accept scores from both the old and new SAT until 2018 and can easily compare the different scores, according to Johnson, who says "admissions folks can wrap their brains around it." Also, new online score reports "offer students and educators more detailed information about their performance," according to Carayol.

2) No more penalty for guessing
Students will earn points for the questions they answer correctly but will not lose points for incorrect answers, as they did on the old test. Moving to no penalty for wrong errors "is going to help kids a lot," according to Johnson. "That’s what they're used to in school."

3) Fewer questions and answers
The new test has fewer questions – 154 versus 171 on the old test – and fewer possible answers. The old SAT gave students five multiple choice answers. Now, students will see four possible answers.

"Our research has indicated that the fifth answer choice added little to the measurement value of questions and, in some cases, actually detracted from the quality of the question content," according to Carayol.

4) Shorter test
Not only will there be fewer questions, but students can spend less time taking the SAT. The old test took 225 minutes, but the new one takes 180 minutes, if you skip the essay (see below).

5) Essay now optional
The College Board has made several changes to the SAT essay, the biggest of which is that it's now optional. Students are no longer required to write an essay, but some colleges and scholarship providers still require it.

If students choose to write an essay, they will have more time to complete it – 50 minutes instead of 25 minutes – and will do so at the end of the test instead of the beginning.

Students doing the essay will no longer be asked to agree or disagree with a position or write about their personal experiences. Instead, they will be asked to read a passage and explain how the author built an argument to persuade the audience.

"This task closely mirrors college writing assignments because it is asking you to analyze how the author used evidence, reasoning, and stylistic and persuasive elements," according to the College Board. "It will promote the practice of reading a wide variety of arguments and analyzing how authors do their work as writers."

6) New vocabulary words
"No longer will students use flashcards to memorize obscure words, only to forget them the minute they put their test pencils down," according to The College Board. Words such as "prevaricator" and "sagacious" will be replaced with words like "synthesis," which students are more likely to use again.

Johnson said he was sad to hear of the change, "because those are fun, geeky words."

7) 'Real-world' math questions
The updated math test now includes geometry and trigonometry and will focus on three areas of math that play the biggest role in college majors and careers "to better reflect what students are already learning in class," according to Carayol.

  • Algebra, which focuses on the mastery of linear equations and systems
  • Problem solving and data analysis, which focuses on being quantitatively literate
  • Advanced math, which features questions that require the manipulation of complex equations

"The math content is more thoughtful, deeper, more robust and not as scattershot," Johnson said. "They're trying to reflect real-world math."

(QUIZ YOURSELF: 5 sample math questions from the new SAT)

8) No-calculator math section
The new SAT has two math sections, one where you can use a calculator and one where you can't. The no-calculator section is new and was designed to make it easier for colleges to assess students' fluency in math and understanding of math concepts, according to The College Board.

"The no calculator section is interesting, but I think that stresses kids out," Johnson said, noting that students have been able to use a calculator on the test since 1994.

9) 65 minutes of reading
"The reading section is rough," Johnson said. "It's 65 minutes straight of reading. It's kind of like, 'Pow!' smacks you right in the face. For most kids, that’s really hard."

On the old SAT, students spent 70 minutes on reading but completed it in three parts – 25 minutes, 25 minutes and 20 minutes.

Carayol says The College Board conducted studies "to ensure the balance we’ve struck among testing time, number of passages, passage lengths, and number of questions on the Redesigned SAT Reading Test is fair to students." She says students taking the new SAT are reading either the same number of words or fewer than students taking the old SAT.

The new reading portion of the test asks students to read passages, interpret informational graphics and use what they've read to answer multiple choice questions.

The reading test includes:

  • One passage from a classic or contemporary work of U.S. or world literature
  • One passage or a pair of passages from either a U.S. founding document or a text in the great global conversation they inspired, the U.S. Constitution or a speech by Nelson Mandela, for example.
  • A selection about economics, psychology, sociology or some other social science.
  • Two science passages that examine foundational concepts and developments in Earth science, biology, chemistry or physics.

Ned Johnson, PrepMatters' founder and author of "Conquering the SAT"

1) Practice, practice, practice
Research shows that one of the best antidotes for students who suffer from excessive test anxiety is more practice tests, according to Johnson. He suggests doing a lot of practice tests on your own using conditions that mimic taking the real SAT.

Try taking a practice test in a library, and be strict about sticking to the time constraints to develop your stamina.

The College Board, which administers the SAT, has partnered with Khan Academy to provide free SAT practice materials. They also have a new app called Daily Practice for the SAT.

2) How does the test affect you?
After doing some practice tests, see how it affects you. If you didn't do as well as you had hoped, ask yourself why. Were you rushing? Did you run out of time? Which questions were difficult for you?

"You need a certain amount of butterflies to do your best, (but) too much anxiety makes you fall apart," Johnson said. "When you take the test the first time, notice if something about the testing situation affected your concentration. Not getting enough sleep, showing up late or forgetting to bring snacks, for example, can throw you off balance."

3) Remember, you are not your test score
"If your greatest success in life is your SAT score, then that’s not a very rich life," Johnson said.

It's important to remember that you are not your test score. A low score does not mean you lack intelligence or are a poor learner. It's just a measurement of material you have not mastered yet.

4) Be anti-social, sleep
Getting enough sleep strengthens the brain pathways that help you retrieve information, according to Johnson. You may be aware that you have learned the material, but your ability to access it becomes compromised, slowing you down. In the days leading up to the test, do essential homework, be anti-social and go to sleep.

5) Focus on the process, not your score
"Obsessing about what your score will be is bound to jangle your nerves," Johnson said. "As you practice and on the big day, try to laser in on the process of taking the test, the part that you can control."

6) Be ready for test day
Make sure you know what to bring with you on test day – photo ID, an acceptable calculator, etc.– and pack your test kit in advance so you can grab it and go. Be clear about where you need to go on test day and allow plenty of time to arrive early.

"The stress of running late can take a toll on your sense of control," Johnson said.

7) Keep in mind: You'll have more chances
Remember, you can take the SAT again if you don't like your score.

"Knowing you have several shots at success should help lower that threat level," Johnson said. "And if you still don't like you score when all is said and done, there are hundreds of 'test-optional' colleges that have concluded that they don't need the tests to make admissions decisions. Go to to learn more."

8) Locate your swagger
"I like to tell students to get up on test day and locate their swagger," Johnson said. "Listen to your favorite music. Wear the clothes that make you feel like all that. Think about the places in your life where you are at your best. Throw your shoulders back and think, 'Oh, yeah!' We all have strengths that tests do not capture. Think about yours."


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