Early Look at 2016 SAT Practice Materials Raise Concerns

In February 2013, the College Board announced that the SAT would be changing its format for the first time in a decade starting in 2015. The details were scant and the plan had perhaps not been thought through fully, as a few months later the launch of the new SAT was delayed until 2016. Changing the SAT was no surprise, but the delayed implementation of the new test (now slated for March of 2016) and the practice materials the College Board recently released through its partner, Khan Academy, paint a different picture: the College Board is struggling to keep up and making mistakes along the way. Not only are the materials flawed, but they also seem to imitate the College Board's main rival, the ACT.

On June 2, Khan Academy announced that its practice materials for the new SAT were up and running. The materials include a number of drills and four full-length practice tests. The four tests demonstrate the College Board's ambition for the SAT, but they also raise some difficult questions. For example, the new "Evidence-Based Reading Test," which is comprised entirely of reading passages from various genres, is predicated on forcing students to identify examples in the text which support their answers. This is a lofty goal -- and one that is worthwhile! -- but the fact that these questions are multiple choice leaves them in a troublesome spot: if the wrong choices clearly do not support the idea, then the right answer is obvious; if the wrong choices are related to the idea, then the right answer is ambiguous. Additionally, some features on Khan Academy's website indicate that they were in a hurry to launch these resources. The online tests have several typos and design mistakes, usually on the math sections where one misplaced variable or negative sign can throw off the entire question (and thereby falsely harm a student's score). There is also a glitch in the website wherein the student-produced responses (i.e. fill-in-the-blank answers for math) at the end of each section are misread and scored as incorrect. Of course, we currently have no way of knowing how much these mistakes would affect a student's score, since the College Board is still yet to release a scoring scale to help students contextualize their raw scores. Without such a scale, it is essentially impossible to tell how hard it is to get a good score on the new SAT, and that severely diminishes the value of these practice materials.

Even with the bumps in the road, the SAT's changes would be viewed as a favorable departure from its current (highly subjective) essay and obscure math puzzles if its new incarnation weren't so similar to the ACT. Several of the holistic changes to the SAT, like eliminating the guessing penalty, giving an optional essay that does not affect total score and reducing the number of answer choices from five to four, are already in place on the ACT. The content of the new SAT is also starting to mirror that found on the ACT. The SAT has added more advanced math topics, like trigonometric ratios and imaginary numbers, topics the ACT has been testing for years. The Evidence-Based Reading and Writing sections of the new SAT also force students to evaluate charts and graphs in a half-hearted attempt to mimic the kind of reasoning found on the ACT Science section. But the most striking change the SAT has made is in its Writing test, which, both in its formatting and its content, looks identical to the ACT's English test.

The new SAT is not a bad test, but it is not yet polished. Given its numerous similarities to the ACT, therefore, students currently heading into their junior years will find the ACT a more reliable option for prep work.