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What Students Can Learn from the 2016 SAT Re-Design


Fox News interviews MyGuru founder and test prep expert, Mark Skoskiewicz, to learn how the recently announced changes to the SAT will impact students.

This article supplements Mark's interview. It discusses the SAT changes that will appear in 2016, and provides advice for students who are preparing to take the SAT and/or ACT in 2014 and 2015.

“Sometimes in the past, there’s been a feeling that tests (i.e., the SAT or ACT) were measuring some sort of ineffable entity such as intelligence, whatever that might mean.  Or ability, whatever that might mean.  What this is is a clear message that good hard work is going to pay off and achievement is going to pay off.”
-- William Fitzsimmons, longtime Dean of Admissions and financial aid at Harvard, the primary author of a 2008 report that criticized the current version of the SAT.

As you may have heard, the SAT is changing.  The SAT test that students take in 2016 will be different, though it’s not exactly clear how different, than the one students take today.  You can read the full story behind the changes to the SAT here. 

In this article we’ll summarize some of the reasons for the changes, explain the major changes that are going to be implemented, and more importantly, show what students taking the test today can learn from the debate to help them excel on the ACT and SAT tests they’ll be taking in 2014 and 2015 – before any changes actually occur.

It’s important to understand that while the above quote (the quote with which we started this blog article) may accurately reflect the concerns of students, parents, and educators, the current version of the SAT, the one students are taking in 2014, is not actually trying to measure “innate intelligence” or “raw ability" in a way that the new SAT will not.  Both the current version and the newer version will, more or less, attempt to predict ability to succeed in college.

However, one of the problems with the current version of the SAT is the fact that it isn’t exactly clear what it is trying to measure.  Different representatives from the College Board have been quoted with slightly different answers about what it is actually testing.  But I think it’s fair to say that the current version of the SAT, while flawed in ways we’ll discuss in this article, like the proposed new version, is intended to:

  1. Predict the likelihood of success in college by measuring those skills developed in high school classes and used in college and beyond and…
  2. so in a way that clearly differentiates the top performers from the bottom performers 

Here’s a quote on the current version of the SAT from Jenny Krugman, Vice President, Southern Region, of the College Board, which administers the SAT test:

“With individual grades and curricula varying widely from school to school, admissions officers need a way to determine what you know and predict whether you’ll succeed at college. A standardized assessment is an important tool for comparing students from different educational experiences…best predictor of college success is a student’s GPA and SAT scores combined. But the test is only one of many factors that colleges consider,”

She goes on to say that –

“The best preparation for standardized tests is to take challenging, college preparatory courses in high school and study hard.  That advice should be printed in 500-point type and underlined about 20 times.”

So, the current version of the SAT is supposed to predict success in college, provide a level playing field for measuring across different educational backgrounds, and reflect the learning and work that a student has put into his or her education. 

So, what’s wrong with the current SAT?

There are a few major problems with the current version of the SAT that are being addressed with the re-design:

  1. In its current version, it is tricky in some ways that it need not be, meaning that preparing specifically for the test (i.e., learning what to always write about in the essay, or learning how to eliminate incorrect answers) can improve performance on it in a meaningful way…
  2. …meaning that students with higher family incomes have been proven to do better on average (there’s a clear correlation)
  3. Penalties for missed answers, which cause students to spend time analyzing whether to even answer a question vs. trying to figure out the best answer
  4. It doesn’t do a great job of testing if students know why a question is right or wrong.  You either get it right, or you don’t.  It doesn’t make students use evidence or explain themselves, which is certainly required in the real world
  5. In an effort to ensure there is differentiation in performance on the test, techniques are used (i.e., such as incorporating very difficult vocabulary words that student would rarely or never hear in college, or incorporating very difficult/unusual mathematics question/concepts) that only a few students will understand.  So, the test becomes in part a vocabulary test or a test of whether you’ve been exposed to some specific idea or concept

In sum, while the current version of the SAT is meant to predict the probability of success in college across students from varying academic backgrounds, in practice, you can score higher on it by learning some specific test taking strategies.  As a result, those with higher family incomes, those able to invest in SAT test prep classes and private SAT tutors, tend to be much better positioned to do well on the SAT.  This seems to generally be true. 

All that said, at MyGuru, we like to reiterate again and again and again that while the SAT and the ACT, the current versions, can appear very tricky, and while the above problems do exist, the developers of these tests are generally very transparent about what is covered on them.  Perhaps in 1926 when the SAT was created the idea was to create some sort of IQ test that you couldn’t prepare for, but that hasn’t been the case for a long time. The College Board or doesn’t hide what’s on the tests, and most $25 test prep books do cover most of the major concepts on the SAT and ACT.  So, with the right mindset and the right type of focused practice, above average performance for anyone that’s worked hard in school and received good grades should be possible, regardless of annual family income. 

But certainly, the above problems are real, and the SAT is addressing them, starting in 2016.

Proposed Changes

The proposed changes more or less mirror the problems stated above, and are meant to ensure that the more you’ve learned in high school about the types of ideas likely to be covered in college, the better you’ll do on the SAT.  The changes, of course, are also meant to ensure that a higher family income doesn’t do such a good job of increasing the chances you’ll do well on the SAT relative to anyone else.  The changes includes:

  • Follow up questions which require students to explain why their answer was right or wrong
  • Removal of the penalty for missed answers
  • Much less focus on complicated vocabulary words
  • Tighter focus on specific math concepts, applied in varying ways (i.e., going deeper into a smaller set of math concepts)
  • Making the essay optional, and changing the scoring back to 1600 (it’s been at 2400 for some time, once the essay was turned into a requirement)

In general, it’s hard to argue against any of these changes.  They seem sound, and clearly push the test in a direction that makes sense for almost all parties involved.  Everyone wants a clear test that measures skills required to succeed in college: analytical ability, reading comprehension, critical thinking, problem solving, writing, etc. 

What to Take Away Today

There are seven simple insights to take away from the discussion of the SAT redesign that can help students taking the SAT in 2014, 2015, or any version of the ACT, today.

  1. Adopt the right mindset. The SAT is not trying to test your innate intelligence through trickery; it’s trying to predict your ability to succeed in college by testing learnable skills.  With the right type of practice, you can improve your performance.
  2. Know the test and how it’s scored.  Don’t begin doing practice problems until you understand the broad concepts on the exam, types of questions used, whether you’re penalized for incorrect answers, etc.  Always develop a study plan before jumping in your practice sessions.
  3. Leave yourself 2-3 months to prepare.  The current SAT and the new version of the SAT both purport to test skills you’ve learned in high school and will need in college.  That means there is a large number of reading, reasoning, problem solving, math, and writing skills that may show up.  If you haven’t taken the most advanced classes in high school, you might need a good amount of time to build up your skill set specifically for the exam.  You don’t have to spend 15 hours a week for three months, but if you start early and find some large skill gaps, you have time to address them.  Almost nothing in life is best left to the last minute.
  4. Take a practice test early on. Once you have a general understanding of what’s on the exam, start by taking a practice test.  This will give you a baseline understanding of your performance, and provide guidance on where you’ll need to spend more time practicing.  A free official SAT practice test is available here and a free official ACT practice test is available here
  5. Buy official test prep materials from the administrator of the exam. The College Board and both offer online practice and physical prep books.  Purchase these as a starting point.  They are very clear about what’s on these exams.
  6. Develop a customized study plan.  Once you believe you can prepare, understand the test, know where you’ll need to focus from the practice test, and have the right materials, write out a study plan, structured around the sections of the prep book you’ve purchased, but customized around your strengths and weaknesses.  Here’s MyGuru’s generic ACT study plan.
  7. Assess whether you need help.  If you find that you scored well below what you were hoping on the practice test, and are having trouble getting started with building a study plan, you might need some help. At MyGuru, we strongly believe in the superiority of private, 1-1 SAT tutoring over test prep classes and online preparation (because of the ability to customize a study plan and get targeted, expert feedback in real time), and we try to make our services very affordable relative to many large tutoring companies.  That said, SAT prep classes from a large national company certainly are helpful all else equal, and companies like Magoosh are offering very high quality, relatively low cost SAT prep online.  You have a large number of prep options to choose from.
MyGuru is in the process of writing a book about how adopting the right mindset, building a customized study plan, and preparing in specific ways, regardless of the content of the exam, can improve performance on standardized tests.  You can download a free initial chapter to our book about improving performance on standardized tests here.