Last Tuesday, the College Board released 4 official practice exams for the new format of the SAT, to be administered starting in March of 2016. The release of these exams puts to rest a lot of the rumors and conjecture about the test’s content, difficulty, and usefulness as a quantitative measure of students’ abilities. For the most part, there were no surprises. (We wrote about what we expected in Math, Reading, and Writing based on the College Board’s rSAT “blueprint,” released in 2014.)
Our test experts have combed through the tests; here’s what they have to report:
- The rSAT looks a lot like the ACT, except the lower number of questions (relative to the ACT) means students can relax their pacing a bit. However, as we saw in the previously-released sample rPSAT and sample rSAT materials, there is a lot more text for students to deal with than on the current SAT. Slower readers or students easily overwhelmed by blocks of text may come up against a psychological barrier here.
- The Reading section, while containing longer passages than the current SAT, really pushes students to look for empirical evidence for their answers. Virtually every question that appears to ask for students’ interpretations is followed by the new “find-the-evidence-for-your-previous-answer” question type. We think this will help students choose better answers, as the evidence questions will essentially serve as checks on the “read-between-the-lines” questions.
- While newspapers celebrated the death of SAT vocabulary when the test changes were announced, we were surprised to find an increase in the “vocabulary-in-context” question type in the Reading section. Challenging vocabulary also showed up in questions testing diction in the Writing section.
- Science and data analysis questions are, as promised, integrated into the Writing, Reading, and Math sections. Students are asked to revise sentences based on information gleaned from a chart, or they must relate information deduced from a graph to statements in a reading passage. While this integration is on the whole smoother than it was in the previous sample materials released by the College Board, some students will still be caught off guard having to switch between language arts skills and data interpretation ones. This skill-switching will be essential for students to practice.
- Gone are (most of) the SAT’s brainteaser-like math questions. Most of the math questions are fairly straightforward, and only a few require students to combine multiple types of math or rely on misdirection to trick students out of the right answer. The rSAT does ask students to do a great deal of algebraic manipulation, so students will need to maintain attention to detail and not be overwhelmed by tangled variables and exponents.
- If these practice tests are good indications of what actual rSAT content will be, then punctuation is a new favorite topic to test in Writing. Students should study up on commas, semicolons, and colons, as well as the mechanics of combining sentences and clauses using conjunctions and appropriate punctuation.
- The essay, which will be optional, has undergone by far the biggest transformation on the rSAT. We knew in general what the essay task would look like: 50 minutes to analyze an argument presented in a passage. Now we know how monumental this task will be for many students. The passage is two pages long, and in the sample materials, is taken from persuasive speeches by Jimmy Carter and Martin Luther King, Jr. and op-eds from Time and the LA Times, both of which are replete with references to stats and studies. These are carefully-crafted, detailed, historically- and socially-contextualized pieces. Students are asked to “demonstrate that you have read the passage carefully, present a clear and logical analysis, and use language precisely” in order to identify and comment upon the author’s use of evidence, logic, and emotion to build an argument. We think this topic is too broadly stated for most students to respond with a coherent and focused analysis. Students who opt to take the essay portion of the rSAT will need to familiarize themselves with a methodical approach to analyzing others’ argumentation and rhetoric, and healthy amounts of practice - combined with feedback from an experienced writing coach - will be key.
While the seven observations above are worth noting, it’s also worth restating that we think the rSAT, especially in its alignment with the ACT, is going to be good for students. Students can prep once and, with a few notes on structure and timing, be ready to take either test.