An Insider's Guide to the New SAT

Surprising no one in the test preparation industry, College Board's newly-released details on the revised SAT reveal the significant impact the Common Core Standards will have on one major college admissions test. Here's what you need to know.
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Surprising no one in the test preparation industry, College Board's newly-released details on the revised SAT reveal the significant impact the Common Core Standards will have on one major college admissions test.

What do I need to know?

First, these changes aren't happening right away. If your child is planning to take the test before March of 2016, he or she will take the current version. If your child is in the class of 2017 (or later) and plans to take the SAT, these changes will probably affect you. So if you have a 9th grader at home, he or she may be among the very first to take the new SAT.

What should my child do?

1. Don't leave anything blank
. The new test eliminates the ¼ point guessing penalty. Answer every single question, even if you have no idea. Don't leave a single question blank.

2. Ditch the vocab cards. Way less to memorize, but there's a catch: Plan to see words with more than one meaning. Which meaning is correct? Well, that will depend on context. Tricky. The solution: read, read, read.

3. Get comfortable with lots of interactive content. Graphs and charts will illustrate information in an adjacent passage, for example. Students will be required to interpret and synthesize information from a variety of sources on the page, not just part of a passage.

4. Write a whole different kind of essay. Gone are the days of writing ridiculous essays filled with made up historic battles and novels by fictitious authors. Writing the essay will now be more like writing one for an AP exam. You'll be given a document and asked to analyze and explain it. That sounds hard! However, "The essay prompt will be shared in advance and remain consistent. Only the source material (the passage) will change," states College Board. So knowing the essay prompt ahead of time and preparing ways to answer it will be crucial. You have more time now too, 50 minutes instead of 25. Oh and its optional (but most competitive universities will still require it).

5. Say goodbye to the 2400. It's back to the old 1600 maximum score many of us remember from the olden days. This will better enable those who were familiar with the old test and never quite got the hang of the March 2005 onwards scoring system to return to their comfortable roots. But with extensive recentering and curving, it won't be easy to compare a 1200 in 2018 with a 1200 in 2000.

6. Count on more challenging math. The 2005 revamp increased the difficulty of SAT math problems, a trend that will only continue on the new exam. From CB's description, there will be more higher-level math on the test in areas such as Problem Solving and Data Analysis. The use of a calculator will no longer be allowed in certain parts of the math test, a huge shift that will have many students weak at mental math quaking in their sneakers. Students who are able to think about math abstractly will be rewarded over those used to approaching problems in rigidly defined steps.

7. It's not all about book smarts, get ready for "real-world" contexts. Students will be reading passages and interpreting data about issues they might encounter in real life. Like what? Hopefully topics like choosing a summer job or understanding the way sales tax changes affect local communities.

8. Re-read Dr. King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail." Each SAT will contain "an excerpt from one of the Founding Documents or a text from the ongoing Great Global Conversation about freedom, justice, and human dignity." This is a really interesting change. It could spark new conversations about civic engagement and what it means to be a good citizen. It could also mystify foreign students who are less familiar with how the Bill of Rights, for example, influences contemporary law and policy here in the U.S..

9. Keep your pencils sharpened. The new SAT will still be administered on paper, but there will also be a (I predict rather slow) roll-out of an online version of the test taken on a computer. (ACT has made similar announcements about moving to an online version of the test). While it seems like a no-brainer to administer tests on computers in today's highly-connected, technologically advanced society, computers remain significantly more rare and expensive than pencils and paper. Most tests administered on computers take advantage of technology that allows for more accurate scoring despite administering fewer questions. Test takers who answer a question correctly subsequently get a harder one. Answer that one wrong and you get a slightly easier one. But tests like these are expensive to design and administer. GMAC's GMAT, for example, costs each student $250 per administration. So don't expect the SAT to go wholly online anytime soon.

10. Take advantage of free online preparation. A deal with Khan Academy will provide all students with access to free tutoring resources. While affluent families will still hire tutors for their children, more preparation material provided directly from College Board than ever before will be available online. Practicing on real material created by the makers of the test is the best way to prepare for the SAT, so this change is great news for students around the world.

Who will benefit from these changes?

•Students with excellent skills in reading comprehension, logical reasoning, and data analysis.

•Students who read independently. The best way to tackle those challenging word-in-context questions? Start enjoying the process of extracting meaning from complex texts.

•Elite high schools that engage their students in rigorous, small-class debates about ethics, philosophy and decision-making.

•High-end test preparation companies and their tutors who already teach reasoning skills (rather than test-taking tricks) and are nimble enough to adapt to these changes.

•Middle class and lower middle class students who cannot afford one-on-one test preparation but have access to free Khan Academy materials on the Internet

Who will not?

•The big test preparation firms. With more official material than ever online as well as free tutorials in how to solve difficult problems, the need for "spun" preparation material (which looks real but isn't created by the makers of the test) and tricks for solving weird SAT-specific problems is greatly lessened.

•Students who find the current test unbearably long. The new exam is three hours and fifty minutes (with optional essay) versus the current exam's three hours and forty-five minute length.

•Students with learning disabilities. Students who contend with visual-spatial processing disabilities in particular may be negatively impacted by the necessity of interpreting charts and graphs to arrive at the credited response.

•Students who do not write well under time pressure. 50 minutes is a lot more time than the old 25 minutes allotted for the essay, but it's still far less time than a diligent student would spend at home each night outlining and writing several drafts of an important short written assignment due in class. Students who dread in-class essays will find the new essay format difficult.

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