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What are the main changes to the new SAT?

“As almost everyone knows by now, the SAT is changing – again.”

Benjamin Franklin almost got it right. Along with death and taxes, a third thing is certain in this world. That would be the SAT, the cumbersome, fearsome and frequently baffling Saturday morning monster that can dictate which students get into the best colleges and universities – and force others to make alternate plans.

Spring Will Bring a New Version of the SAT

As almost everyone knows by now, the SAT is changing – again. Beginning in March 2016, yet another flavor of the venerable college-entrance test will debut. The SAT has gone through myriad permutations since its inception in 1926, but the latest version brings on some of the most dramatic modifications in years.

For many students and parents, the bottom-line question will be:

“Is the ‘new’ SAT easier?”

The quick answer is yes. And there’s a reason for that – the current test apparently is too hard for many.

The College Board, which administers the SAT, reported in September that the average score for the Class of 2015 was 1490 out of the maximum 2400, down 7 points from the previous class’s results and the worst composite scores since the test was revamped in 2005. (Note that the 2016 test will revert to the earlier scoring method, when 1600 was the top score.)
So briefly, here are the major changes:

“No vocab that you’ll never use again.”

That’s how the College Board describes a huge adjustment in the quality of the actual words that appear on the test. “No longer will students use flashcards to memorize obscure words, only to forget them the minute they put their test pencils down.”

No penalty for incorrect answers.

Guessing wrong used to hurt. Now, students can guess away at will. No answer should be left blank.

The essay – dreaded by so many students – is now optional.

But be careful: Some institutions will still require it. If students choose to take it, they’ll have 50 minutes to complete it – twice the time in the current test.

Essay prompts are quite different and should seem considerably “friendlier.”

Instead of agreeing or disagreeing with a proposition, students will be asked to read an existing passage and analyze how the author builds his or her arguments.

• “Evidence focused” reading.

Like the new essay, the reading portion of the test will be based on evidence as well. Students will be asked a question about a text and required to choose something from within it that supports their answer.

Lots of graphs and charts.

Students will be required to interpret information in the charts and revise sentences based on the graphical information presented.

Fewer choices on multiple-choice questions – four rather than five.

This accomplishes two things: It saves time, and guessers will have a 5 percent higher chance of choosing the correct answer.

On the math side, the updated test promises a greater focus on practical usage.

The new SAT focuses on on math problems that students will need to solve in college, employment, and daily personal life. A calculator can only be used for a portion of the math segment.

Studying for the test will be more wallet-friendly.

There’ll be free personalized practice and a nifty app that provides a new test question each day and allows instant scoring of a complete practice SAT or PSAT simply by taking a picture with a smartphone. Many parents, of course, will wisely opt for private SAT tutoring.

Mixed Reactions to the New SAT

While many rejoice over the “easier” SAT, and the College Board promises “the skills and knowledge colleges want most,” not everyone is convinced that the changes are moving things in the right direction.

“These tweaks are a shame inasmuch as educators lose measures that provided critical information,” writes Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Kathleen Parker in The Washington Post. “The essay, for instance, wasn’t a call to Emersonian excellence but was a way of determining whether a student can compose a coherent sentence – you know: subject, verb, all that stuff – not to mention whether one can think.

“If a person can’t write a series of sentences to express a cogent thought, does that person really qualify for a college education? For what purpose?”

-by Steve Eddy

Steve Eddy is a tutor, freelance writer and retired newspaperman.  He is an expert on current issues in education and regularly contributes to the Atlanta Tutors “Education Resources” blog.