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SAT I versus the SAT II Subject Tests

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In this lesson, we’re going to cover some of the differences in format and scoring between the “regular” SAT I and the SAT II Subject Tests. The 2016 redesign of the SAT I did not extend to the Subject Tests. They remain the same as they were before March of this year. This means that students who have adapted to the new SAT format will have to “unlearn” some of the changes implemented in the redesigned to do their best on the Subject Tests. Likewise, students who are only familiar with the new SAT I will need to keep these differences in mind to avoid being unfairly penalized for the discrepancies in format.


3 to 5 Answer Choices

The new SAT I provides four answer choices for every multiple choice question. The Subject Tests, on the other hand, can have anywhere from three to five choices, with five being the most common. Unsurprisingly, five was the number of choices on the old SAT I format.


Penalties for Wrong Answers

The old SAT I penalized students for wrong answers. A quarter of a point was deducted for each wrong answer while no penalty was assessed for unanswered questions. The new SAT I eliminated this penalty, but it still exists on the Subject Tests. The exact penalty for a wrong answer depends on the number of answer choices. Five answer questions have a ¼ of a point penalty, four answer questions a 1/3 of a point penalty, and three answer questions a ½ of a point penalty.


What this boils down to is that the risk/reward dynamics of the SAT I and II are very different. The SAT I rewards educated guessing and discourages not answering questions. The Subject Tests penalize guessing and reward strategically-skipping questions.


Knowing the New SAT Won’t Help Much

The College Board overhauled every section of the SAT I during the redesign process. Many of the strongest aspects of the new SAT are unique to this version. This includes (but is not limited to) the elimination of Reading “vocabulary quiz” questions, the introduction of a completely passage-based Writing section, and the shift towards more “real world” Math questions.


Overall, familiarity with the new SAT I design isn’t any less likely to help you on the Subject Tests than familiarity with the old SAT design is. However, it isn’t any more likely to help you either. The Literature Test, for example, emphasizes different reading skills than either the old or new SAT I Reading Tests do.  The Math I and II Subject Tests feature fewer “real world” math concepts than new SAT I Math does, but the Subject Tests’ focus on advanced math concepts means that there is limited overlap with SAT I Math period.


The small similarities that do exist between the new SAT I and certain specific Subject Tests tend to be of limited value. For instance, the SAT I and some of the science Subject Tests both have data presentations (charts, graphs, and tables). However, Subject Test data presentations tend to be significantly more complex than their SAT I counterparts.


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