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Everything you need to know about the SAT

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

What is the SAT?

The SAT is a college entrance exam that schools use to evaluate student applications.

The SAT tests students on their math, reading, and writing aptitude, although the writing section is becoming optional. The reading section asks students to interpret passages and identify vocabulary definitions. The math section covers a wide range of topics, including geometry, algebra, and data analysis. The writing section includes an essay and questions on grammar and sentence and paragraph structure. Each section is worth 200-800 points, up to a total of 2400.

The test is slated for a redesign in 2016. The College Board, the nonprofit company that owns the SAT, initiated the undertaking in part as a response to a series of ongoing controversies surrounding the test. The announced changes also come at a big moment for the SAT: for the first time in decades, its competitor the ACT appears to have more test-takers.

The SAT has been hotly debated and scrutinized since its launch in 1926, and today's iteration is no different. SAT critics argue the test favors the wealthy, with the blame falling largely on costly — $1,000 or more, in some cases — test-preparation services that poorer families can't afford. And some education experts argue the SAT favors memorization instead of problem solving and critical thinking.

What is the ACT?

The ACT is another college entrance exam and the main competitor to the SAT.

The ACT was first administered in 1959 in 19 states, in response to complaints that the SAT favored memorization and innate intelligence over academic ability and problem solving. In recent years, the amount of students taking the ACT overtook the amount of students taking the SAT.


The overarching difference between the ACT and SAT is the ACT tests the content of what students learned in high school, while the SAT focuses more on an ability to reason.

Some other differences: the ACT tends to ask more straightforward questions than the SAT. The SAT places a stronger emphasis on complex vocabulary, while the ACT tests more advanced math concepts. The ACT has a science section, while the SAT does not. The ACT's writing portion is optional, while the SAT's writing portion will be mandatory until the 2016 redesign. And the ACT, unlike the SAT, doesn't deduct points for a wrong answer.

SAT essay question vs. ACT writing question:

SAT: What is your view of the claim that something unsuccessful can still have some value?
ACT: In your view, should high schools become more tolerant of cheating?

Despite the differences, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing argues the ACT, like the SAT, favors students from wealthier families, among other groups.


While the SAT and ACT are often seen to be in competition, it is possible to take both tests, and a huge majority of colleges with stricter admissions policies accept either test in applications. Students who take both are advised to submit whichever test they score better on.

How is the SAT changing?

The College Board is revamping the SAT beginning in spring 2016, with nine major changes that touch on the test's format, content, and how it's taken. These changes are meant to address concerns that the SAT is becoming less relevant to students and colleges.

1) The timed essay portion is optional. This brings the SAT back to a 1600 point scale, down from 2400 points, although the College Board expects some colleges will continue requiring the 800 point essay.

2) The test will emphasize more common words. While it might be nice to know obscure words like "remuneration," "plaudit," and "lachrymose," the College Board acknowledges students should not need to memorize hundreds of words they'll likely never use again.

3) How students interpret different texts and graphics will play a bigger role in the new test. For example, after answering a question about a passage, students will also be asked to cite a quote from the passage to support their answer.

4) The math portion will focus on three sections: problem solving and data analysis, algebra, and more advanced math. The idea is to move away from a US education model that covers many topics but none deeply.

5) The redesigned test will try to use more questions grounded in the real world. Math questions, for instance, will be framed through the sciences and other real-world contexts. The idea is to move away from bare equations and instead task students with modeling realistic scenarios through math.

6) Questions will bring in more context from the sciences and social studies. Today, those subjects are mostly left to SAT Subject Tests. The SAT redesign aims to include a broader range of topics.

7) The new test will bring in the US Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and other texts about freedom, justice, and human dignity. The College Board claims the goal is to "inspire deep engagement with texts that matter and reflect not only what is important for college and career, but what is important for citizenship here and around the world."

8) Test-takers will no longer be punished for a wrong answer. This change aims to move the focus of the SAT from test-taking strategies to the content of the test. Many test-preparation services, for example, currently advise students to leave questions blank if they don't know the answer. With the changes, students will have some incentive to at least work through the problem and develop an educated guess.

9) Students will be able to take the test on computers at select locations, instead of only on paper.

For a more concrete example, here are four sample questions recently released by the College Board.

Why is the SAT being changed?

The College Board is changing the SAT to address two main concerns: it faces mounting criticism that the test favors wealthier students, and it's becoming less popular with students.

Impetus for change largely stems from the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which has long argued that standardized testing in general favors wealthier students and families. College Board data backs up that concern.


Second, students seem to be moving away from the test. The ACT overtook the SAT as the more frequently taken college admission test in 2012.


David Coleman, the College Board's president since 2012, has led the charge in changing the SAT. While some SAT critics see change as a long time coming, others are impressed by the turnaround he's made with the test. Les Perelman, previously a director of writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told The New York Times Magazine that changing the College Board is "like trying to turn around the Titanic."

The rise of the ACT and the fall of the SAT coincides with the SAT redesign in 2005. Those changes, particularly the addition of a mandatory writing section, drew negative reviews from education leaders. Coleman echoed some of the criticisms against the writing section when he spoke at the Brookings Institute in 2012.

Does the SAT favor certain groups of people?

The SAT seems to favor families with higher incomes. The College Board's data shows SAT scores directly correlate with family income. The higher the income, the higher the SAT score.


Most racial minorities also struggle on the SAT. Asian and white students — the two racial groups with the lowest poverty rates — tend to score the best on the SAT. Blacks, non-white Hispanics, and American Indians — all groups with higher poverty rates — score much worse in comparison, sometimes by hundreds of points.

To explain the disparity, SAT critics often point to costly test-preparation services. They argue wealthier families can afford to put their children in the programs, which can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars, while poorer families cannot.

Major studies found test-preparation services help, but they don't explain the entire gap. A 2009 review of the research found coaching improves SAT math and reading scores by roughly 30 points out of 1600 total points.

The 30-point difference doesn't come close to accounting for the hundreds-point gap found on average between test-takers at the bottom of the income ladder and those at the top. Since higher incomes tend to correlate with better educational attainment in general, the gap is really part of a broader trend: students from wealthier families often get better educations, period.

Who owns the SAT?

The College Board is the nonprofit organization that owns the SAT. The board also manages Advanced Placement exams, helps develop high school curriculums, and heads advocacy and outreach programs in pursuit of greater accessibility to college.

The College Board is comprised of more than 6,000 colleges, high schools, school districts, higher education systems, and other nonprofit entities. They all appoint delegates to national and regional assemblies, who then help pick the group's leadership. (More on the board's governance here.)

Joining the College Board allows colleges and other education leaders to shape standards, whether it be for the SAT or for high school curriculums. Without membership, a college could be left voiceless when, for example, an SAT redesign is in the works.

The group is currently led by David Coleman, the president and CEO. Coleman helped design the Common Core standards for K-12 schools prior to being hired by the College Board, and he has played a pivotal role in pushing for the SAT redesign for 2016.

Although the College Board classifies as a nonprofit, SAT critics complain the board maintains high surpluses and pays high salaries to its leaders. The College Board argues it spends surpluses on subsidies for education programs, fee waivers, and advocacy and outreach campaigns.

How is the SAT put together?

The College Board puts each SAT question through a vetting process before it ends up in a live testing environment.

The College Board-hired Educational Testing Service first designs the questions. A team of experts, which includes English and math teachers, then vets the questions — a process that the College Board claims is part of ensuring each question "reflects what most college-bound students are learning in school." The questions are then tested by students "to make sure that it is fair for students of all backgrounds and ethnicities."

SAT critics argue the review doesn't go far enough, citing the direct correlation between family incomes and SAT scores.

Who takes the SAT?

More than 1.6 million 2013 high school graduates (out of a projected 3.3 million) took the SAT, according to the College Board's demographic breakdown.

Among those graduates, roughly two-thirds were seniors when they took the SAT, nearly one-third were juniors, and less than 1 percent were freshmen and sophomores. (The younger test-takers are often part of programs looking for gifted students.)

Whites, blacks, Hispanics, American Indians, and Alaska natives were underrepresented by varying degrees among test-takers, compared to the projected pool of 2013 high school graduates. Asians and Pacific Islanders were overrepresented by a factor of nearly two.

Similarly, students from private schools were overrepresented by a factor of nearly two, while public school students lagged behind.

Which colleges require the SAT?

The vast majority of colleges with stricter admissions policies still require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores, and about 87 percent say test scores play a considerable or moderate role in admission decisions.

But some selective colleges are moving away from testing requirements. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing keeps a list of test-optional colleges and another list of the top-tier colleges that are test-optional. On the list, among many others: Wake Forest University, New York University, DePaul University, and George Mason University.

A 2013 survey from the the National Association for College Admission Counseling found college admission offices rank students' grades in college preparatory courses and the academic rigor of their course loads higher than standardized test scores. But the test scores are weighted more than a student's overall grade point average.

The College Board provides a tracking tool for each college's standards. More prestigious colleges, such as Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, generally require the SAT or the ACT (students can decide which one they take) and SAT Subject Tests. Colleges that admit more applicants, such as the University of Cincinnati and Michigan State University, tend to require the SAT or ACT, but they typically recommend, not require, the SAT Subject Tests.

Colleges emphasize that standardized tests are one part of a comprehensive admissions process, and the research shows tests scores alone can't wholly predict a student's level of success in college.

Among other predicting factors looked at by colleges are high school grades, success in Advanced Placement courses, economic disadvantage, demographic background, and extracurricular activities.

Do high SAT scores predict better performance in college?

High SAT scores can partly predict a student's success in college, but it seems other factors, particularly high school grades, can play a bigger role. And it's generally seen as better practice to consider multiple variables, including SAT scores and high school grades, to predict college outcomes.

A 2008 study commissioned by the College Board found high school grades are sometimes a better predictor of first-year college grades than SAT scores. But the study also found that looking at the combination of SAT scores and high school grades predicts college outcomes better than either measure does alone. (The board recommend colleges weigh both high school grades and SAT scores when evaluating applications.)

One study from researchers at the University of California at Berkley found prediction models that tap into standardized test results, high school grades, and other factors only predict about 25-30 percent of outcome measures like college grades. Another analysis from Princeton University found colleges and students can expect class ranks to fluctuate by as much as 30 percentage points based on success on the SAT.

You didn't answer my question!

This is very much a work in progress. It will continue to be updated as events unfold, new research gets published, and fresh questions emerge.

So if you have additional questions or comments or quibbles or complaints, send a note to German Lopez:

Where can I learn more about the SAT?

The College Board provides a lot of thorough information about its test: videos about different aspects of the test, registration information, practice services, a brief history of the test, and the board's own breakdown of the 2016 changes.

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a vocal critic of the SAT and standardized testing in general, also provides a fact sheet about its opposition, along with a thorough list of colleges with relaxed standardized testing requirements.

Todd Balf at The New York Times Magazine wrote a phenomenal in-depth article about the story behind the upcoming SAT revamp. College Board researchers also put together a very useful in-depth history of the test back in 2002.


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