While more than 1 million students are taking a college admissions test some say has been in dire need of updating, the College Board on Wednesday released new sample questions for the redesigned SAT that college-bound students will begin taking two years from now.
In March, the organization announced that beginning in the spring of 2016, the SAT would return to a 1600-point scale, the test's essay portion would no longer be mandatory and the reading and math sections would be adjusted to align better with what students actually learn in school. Test-takers will also no longer be penalized for incorrect answers. In the past, one-quarter of a point was deducted for every incorrect response.
Along with sample questions for each of the sections, the College Board also released a side-by-side comparison of the current SAT and the redesigned test. The combined reading and writing sections, the comparison shows, will be more evidence-based and will weave in information from other subjects like history and science.
"The changes to the SAT will distinguish it from any current admission exam," College Board President David Coleman and College Board Chief of Assessment Cynthia Schmeiser wrote in a letter posted on the board website. "There will be real-world applications of reading and math not only in science, but also in social science and career contexts involving both text and graphics."
One sample question from the reading and writing section asks students to determine the meaning of words in context. After reading a passage from "The Great Reset," a book about the economic downturn of 2008-09, students are asked to determine what the word "intense" most nearly means, given the context of the passage.
Math questions will focus on "the heart of algebra," problem-solving and data analysis, the "passport to advanced math" (problems covering topics relevant to college and career work) and additional subjects such as geometry and trigonometry.
One sample question is a traditional algebra problem (If 1/2x + 1/3y = 4, what is the value of 3x + 2y?) while others connect those skills to real-world situations. Another sample question shows a scatter plot showing the number of Florida manatees over several years and asks students to determine the average yearly increase in the number of manatees.
Coleman and the College Board, as well as other experts, have said questions on the current SAT (see below) are too disconnected from what students actually learn in the classroom. That's why the new test will ditch the arcane vocabulary the current version uses, and make questions more applicable to real-world events and historical occurrences.
While being able to solve "unfamiliar problems" is valuable, the College Board guidance says, a test "based entirely on this idea does not provide as much assurance that students have learned essential math skills and practices – nor does it reward students for their hard work in doing so."
"The redesigned SAT is just one part of our broader effort to deliver opportunity," Coleman and Schmeiser wrote in the letter. "By working together, we can ensure that many more students will be college and career ready and take advantage of the opportunities they have earned."
Still, some experts say that while the changes are a good start, they fall short in some areas. Karen Arnold, an education professor at Boston College and an expert on college preparedness, said that while focusing on "high utility" vocabulary words is helpful, more privileged students will still have a leg up.
“I don’t think, to use an SAT word, it’s a panacea for reducing gaps in test results by family income,” Arnold said. "So cultural capital is not going to be eliminated as a predictor of vocabulary but at least they’re trying to get obscure vocabulary out of the SAT, so that’s good."
Arnold added that the College Board should not have made the essay portion optional because the redesigned essay, which focuses on text-based analysis, tests the kind of writing students are asked to do in college. It also now allows 50 minutes of writing time, rather than the 25 minutes allotted on the current SAT.
Arnold noted the new test additionally will be more closely aligned with the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by nearly every state.
“It’s a big experiment," Arnold said. "I think it's a step forward for the way that they are redoing the two core tests – the reading and writing and the mathematics – but I am disappointed that they didn't make the essay mandatory."