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Change Coming to the SAT – So What Else Is New?

So you heard the press… MAJOR changes coming to the SAT. As the headline says, “Not to worry”! Please remember, that most of the ‘fears’ around the SAT, stem from rumors and myths about the exam. When parents and students get the facts about the test – what it’s TRULY testing, the mandatory skills, mindset and strategies, how the test is used, etc. – their fears are quickly dissipated.

First, let me share some of the announced changes. (David Coleman, President of the College Board who made the announcement yesterday, did not give ANY real specifics – the changes were discussed with a very broad brush.)

1. There will be reading passages from the nation’s ‘founding documents’ such as the Declaration of Independence or King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. So, contrasting excerpts from discussions of King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” is less relevant in testing reading skills than his actual writing?

2. The vocabulary tested will be less esoteric. Does that mean that esoteric is too esoteric for the exam?

3. The essay will now be optional, just like the ACT, and based on an analysis of a presented passage rather than a global topic substantiated from literature, current events, or personal experience.

4. There will no longer be a penalty for random guessing just like the ACT. Isn’t it a plus to know how to make a solid judgment call – knowing the difference between a random guess and an educated guess and realizing the consequence?

5. The scoring will return to the 1600 point scale as the essay will now be a separate score.

6. Source documents from science and social studies – hmmm – I remember passages about the string theory, life on Mars, cloning, Native Americans. (Like I said, the changes discussed were vaguely described.)

7. The exam time will be reduced from just under four hours to three – sounds like the ACT length.

8. The math will cover linear and complex equations, functions, ratios, percentages and proportional reasoning. Not sure how that differs from arithmetic word problems, properties of integers, rational numbers, and geometric concepts. Math is math! (Oh, no calculator on some of the math sections.)

This is not the first change to the SAT. So, before I continue, let me give you a brief history of 6 major changes to the SAT that I have experienced since I began SAT prep in 1977:

1980: Copies of SATs are finally released in a book

1994: The antonym question is dropped as well as the grammar section, TSWE. The number of reading comprehension questions, now termed critical reading, is increased. The passages are also more reflective of college level reading. Sound familiar?

1995: The scores are recentered to raise the average score 80 points in the verbal and 20 in the math. Students don’t have to get every question correct to get a perfect score.

2005: In response to the University of California president stating he wanted to drop the SAT I as an entrance requirement, the College Board merged the SAT I and the SAT II Writing, added the grammar section (again), as well as the essay. In the math the quantitative comparisons were dropped. The test length increased to 3 hours 45 minutes. Also, the cost of the exam almost doubled!

2009: Score choice added – similar to the ACT.

2013: The College Board announces that major changes are coming to the exam in 2016. (Specifics – sample test and questions – will be released on April 16, 2014).

Now that you have some important background about the exam and College Board, you can probably get a better sense of why the College Board is changing the exam. The number of students taking the test for the past two years has been surpassed by the ACT.

It’s common knowledge that students who are avid readers and take a challenging school curriculum will naturally score very high on the SAT. Such an echelon of students have inadvertently taught themselves the requisite reading, thinking and problem solving skills to be confident test-takers. So, how many lessons do I recommend if such a student calls for test prep? 0-6 hours.

For those students who need to learn and create a better foundation and consequently become effective test takers, I teach them the requisite skills and strategies. Mr. Coleman mentioned that the those who do test preparation are merely imparting tricks and short cuts to thinking and learning. I beg to differ. My degree is in (special) education, so my job is to educate my students. Here are just some of the so-called ‘tricks’ I teach my students.


* improve reading speed, focus and comprehension

* understand and decode vocabulary into their core parts: roots and prefixes

* increase long-term memory of new words

* find the thesis in a reading passage and understand how the author has developed her point

* reason and problem solve ‘out of the box’

* understand the necessary mindset to be a confident test-taker

* pace efficiently through the exam

(Naturally, there are a host of strategies and techniques also taught that are particularly relevant to taking the SAT.)

Do these sound like ‘tricks’ or important skills necessary for college and beyond?