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Upcoming Changes to the SAT

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As you have probably heard, major changes are coming to the SAT exam in 2016. These changes are intended to make the SAT a fairer and more accurate predictor of how prepared high school students are for college. They are also motivated by a desire to make the SAT more competitive with the ACT, which is increasingly becoming the preferred entrance exam of students and colleges alike.

The College Board’s website has a thorough breakdown on the new SAT. I recommend that students and their parents read it thoroughly before deciding whether to take the SAT, ACT, or both. Still, the official explanations can be a bit dense, and the language used is not always the most straightforward. Additionally, some of the specifications are provisional, and full sample exams have not yet been released. With those caveats in mind, here are what I consider to be some of the more drastic changes to the newly-redesigned SAT.


The current maximum score possible on the SAT is 2400. Starting in 2016, the total score will revert to the older 1600. Furthermore, the degree to which each section contributes to a student’s overall score will shift. Currently, a student can receive a maximum of 800 in each of the three sections: Reading, Writing, and Math. The new scoring format assigns 800 possible points to Math alone; Reading and Writing combined will comprise the remaining 800 points.

This change in scoring reflects an attempt at tighter integration of measuring reading and writing skills. Instead of being in separate sections of the test as they are now, the new SAT treats these interrelated skill sets as subsections of one larger section. The other two sections will be the Essay and Math. This three section setup appears similar to the ACT’s four sections. (There is still no dedicated Science section on the SAT.) Also like the ACT, it appears that the new SAT will present students with all the questions for a given subject in one block. If this is true, students will no longer have to shift mental gears as they jump between interleaved subsections of Reading, Writing, and Math.

The scores themselves will contain multiple subscores, breaking down how well a student demonstrates particular skills. This is standard practice for the ACT, but this will be the first time the SAT has attempted to quantify precisely where students’ strengths and weaknesses lie.

No More “SAT Words”

The current SAT Writing section is infamous for testing students on obscure, archaic vocabulary words that they would rarely, if ever, use outside of the SAT itself. Beginning in 2016, the SAT will shift the emphasis to understanding and applying words in context. Like many of the other changes, this brings the SAT closer in line with the ACT. A rich and varied vocabulary will still be vital to scoring well on the SAT, but students will no longer have to deal with what is basically a glorified vocabulary quiz.

No Penalty for Incorrect Answers … Sort Of

This is yet another trait that the SAT is borrowing from the ACT. On the current SAT students are penalized a quarter of a point for each incorrect multiple choice answer. While this discourages blind guessing, it also makes taking an educated guess on questions where students are not completely sure of the correct answer a nerve-wracking proposition. Students have to constantly weigh the benefit of gaining a point for guessing correctly against the possibility of having ¼ point docked for guessing wrong. In my own personal experience tutoring, this leads far too many students to not answer questions that they have a good shot at getting right. They realize that they might boost their scores if they’re correct, but they know that they will hurt their scores if they’re incorrect.

The new SAT eliminates this penalty but introduces a different challenge in its place. While there is no longer any reason to skip questions, the College Board has possibly placed too much emphasis on answering every question. This is because some questions will build on answers to earlier questions. Depending on how deep the new SAT goes with this system, an incorrect answer could have a cascading effect on how well a student does on subsequent questions.

The Essay

One of the biggest changes to the new SAT is the Essay section. Students will have 50 minutes to write their essays, double the current 25 minutes. The Essay will be optional, and students will receive a separate Essay grade if they decide to take it.

The section itself has been completely overhauled. Instead of asking students to take and defend a position on an intentionally vague prompt, they will be presented with a piece of scholarly writing that they must analyze and critique. Students will essentially be asked to attack the author’s argument and pick apart its flaws and inconsistencies. They will be graded on how well they support their assertions about the author’s argument and what evidence from the text that they fail to incorporate in support of those assertions.

Like the multiple choice sections, the new Essay will provide a more nuanced grade than the old 2 to 12 point scoring system. The new rubric awards students between 2 and 8 points in each of three categories: reading, writing, and analysis. All of this makes the new Essay section more closely resemble the kind of academic writing students are expected to engage in during college. It also places the SAT Essay clearly ahead of its ACT counterpart in measuring college readiness.

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