The SAT has recently undergone a major overhaul – the biggest since 2005, and maybe the biggest ever. The College Board, spurred by a growing chorus of criticism of the SAT, as well as the success of the ACT, has re-envisioned the test on both practical and philosophical levels.

Originally conceived as a measure of innate “aptitude,” the SAT has in recent history been shifting toward a measure of achievement. This latest revision is perhaps the largest step in that direction. According to the College Board’s recently released specifications, the new SAT is designed to align more closely with high school curricula, Common Core standards (developed by David Coleman, current head of the College Board), and the skills that are most closely predictive of academic success at the college level:

“Because it is closely aligned to both high school instruction and post-high school requirements, the redesigned SAT serves as evidence of the hard work students have performed in high school, showing how rigorous course work and focused instruction can help provide opportunities for future success. Combined with high school grades and other factors that inform admission decisions, the redesigned sat gives students an opportunity to put their best foot forward in the admission process and demonstrate how well they have attained the knowledge, skills, and understandings necessary for postsecondary-level work.”

Whether or not the new test will be successful in meeting these goals remains to be seen. Nevertheless, students will need to be prepared for several major structural changes to the test:

Four is the magic number

All “selected response items” (otherwise known as multiple-choice questions) will require students to select from four, rather than five, answer choices – similar to the ACT. Though perhaps not the most striking amendment to the test, it is nonetheless a significant effort to enhance the quality and accuracy of assessment. Per the College Board:

“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.”

No penalty for guessing

Points will no longer be deducted for incorrect answers on the multiple-choice part of the test – also similar to the ACT. Under the new “rights-only” scoring method, each correct answer will receive one point, and each incorrect answer will receive no points. Currently, one-quarter of a point is deducted for each incorrect answer, which in theory discourages students from guessing, leading to a more accurate assessment of students’ ability levels.

Ironically, the penalty seems to have achieved the opposite effect: students are trained in test-prep classes around the country to strategically evaluate whether guessing is statistically in their best interest.

“This move to rights-only scoring…encourages students to give the best answer they have for every question without fear of being penalized for making their best effort. These changes have been made to make the test-taking process more straightforward for students, and to remove from that process any extraneous test-taking strategies that are irrelevant to the achievement constructs being measured.”

A return to the 1600-point score, and an optional writing section

Currently, all students must take the writing portion of the test, despite the fact that many colleges ignore those scores; like the ACT, this revision will make the writing section optional. As a result, the point scale will return to 1600, as it was before the advent of the writing section in 2005. Those students who take the writing test will receive a separate score.

The Writing section will also see a significant shift in focus toward evidence-based analysis. Students will continue to be asked to analyze paragraphs for grammar and substance, but will now additionally be required to interpret graphics and edit the accompanying passages so that they accurately convey the information presented.

Similarly, the current essay, in which students cite personal values and experiences to respond to a statement, will be replaced with one that requires students to analyze a source text’s use of evidence and rhetoric.

Rigorous – not random – reading

Reading sections, like the writing section, will see a shift in focus requiring students to interpret, synthesize, and cite evidence found in a wide range of texts from significant moments in American literature, history and science, rather than the somewhat random selections that now appear. Each exam will feature works from “founding documents” such as the Declaration of Independence, or from the “global conversation” surrounding them, including texts by Edmund Burke, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Mohandas Gandhi.

Vocabulary in context

The days of memorizing “obscure” vocabulary words have come to an end. At least, that’s the goal. Vocabulary will now focus on words that are widely used in a variety of academic and career contexts. Students will now be asked to interpret the meaning of words based on the context, rather than identifying synonyms and antonyms in a vacuum.

If you’re curious to see what these questions might look like, here’s a sample question.

Only the most important math, in real-world applications

The new Mathematics section will be narrowed significantly in scope, and will focus on three key areas: “problem solving and data analysis,” algebra and “passport to advanced math.” According to The College Board, “these areas most contribute to readiness for college and career training” and “are used disproportionately in a wide range of majors and careers.” Fittingly, math will be tested in real-world contexts; students will use mathematic models to solve problems in science, social science, and career scenarios.

Here’s what some of the new math questions will look like.

Free test prep

This new test isn’t set to debut until 2016, but students can soon begin preparing for the test at a new, unprecedentedly low cost: free. In an effort to address long-standing criticisms that the test favors students who can afford expensive test-prep and private tutoring, the College Board is partnering with Kahn Academy, a popular educational website, to develop free, online test prep through videos and interactive practice problems. In addition to being free, the test prep will take advantage of the partnership between the two entities in order to offer the highest possible quality.  According to a recent statement by Salmon Khan, the founder of Khan Academy:

“For too long, there’s been a well-known imbalance between students who could afford test prep courses and those who couldn’t… No other test prep vendor will have the access or the technical sophistication that we can offer all students at no charge.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean you might not need a little more assistance navigating these new changes, or any of the many other challenges associated with applying to college. For more guidance and information, contact Collegiate Gateway. We’re always happy to help.