The new SAT, which thousands of students take for the first time this weekend, has a big, difficult goal on its hands. As the Common Core takes hold in classrooms and national concern grows about income inequality, the test is supposed to be more closely connected to what kids learn in school — and more difficult for rich families to game.
The SAT used to boast that it measured "critical reasoning," unlike the ACT, whose questions were linked more closely to the science, reading, and math kids learn at school. But its critics argued that the SAT's unusual, unpredictable questions meant that families who could afford test preparation could buy their way to better scores, leaving poorer kids behind.
The new SAT is responding to those criticisms. And it looks much different. The obscure vocabulary words — adumbrate, impecunious — are gone. So are the logic problems in the math section. The personal essay is optional. The confusing scoring system, which encouraged students to skip questions they didn't know rather than take their best guess, is out.
The changes are supposed to make the SAT more predictable (no more anxiety over what exactly will be tested), more equitable (no need for a test prep course just to understand what the questions are asking), even more patriotic (every test will include an important document from American history).
But the best way to understand how and why the test looks different now is the questions themselves. So we annotated seven questions (and one follow-up) from the College Board's samples to give you a better idea of the specific ways the test is changing and the motivations behind the switch — as well as some questions those changes raise.
1) Taking on test prep by ditching obscure vocabulary
The following paragraph is part of a longer excerpt of Richard Florida's The Great Reset used in the sample question.1
The new test tries to test analytical reading skills students are supposed to be practicing in schools under the Common Core standards. In the past, passages might not have come from a larger piece of writing. Now they are all excerpts. We've trimmed this excerpt to the most relevant paragraph. The full sample question used a longer, five-paragraph version as the basis for several questions.
"The coming decades will likely see more intense clustering of jobs, innovation, and productivity in a smaller number of bigger cities and city-regions. Some regions could end up bloated beyond the capacity of their infrastructure, while others struggle, their promise stymied by inadequate human or other resources."
As used in the first sentence, the term "intense" most nearly means:2
The test prep industry used to make money by coaching kids to learn long lists of obscure words. Until 2005, students had to complete analogies (test prep : SAT :: breakfast : lunch) that tested both vocabulary and reasoning skills. Until this year, they've had to choose the right word to complete a random sentence. Those questions are all gone. The only vocabulary skill that matters, according to the new SAT, is being able to figure out the meaning of a word based on the context it appears in.
Correct answer: B
2) Redefining "reading" to include charts and graphs too
Which claim about traffic congestion is supported by the graph?3
This question is part of the reading section, not the math section. And here the SAT is doing something entirely different: acknowledging that literacy includes the ability to interpret and understand data.
David Coleman, the head of the College Board, which owns the SAT, was also a key player in the design of the Common Core. And this is just one of many places where the SAT echoes the Common Core: in its acknowledgment that not everything students read will be literature. Interpreting charts and graphs is necessary in all kinds of disciplines, but it's not something students are likely to encounter in English class.
a) New York City commuters spend less time annually delayed by traffic congestion than the average for very large cities.
b) Los Angeles commuters are delayed more hours annually by traffic congestion than are commuters in Washington, D.C.
c) Commuters in Washington, D.C., face greater delays annually due to traffic congestion than do commuters in New York City.
d) Commuters in Detroit spend more time delayed annually by traffic congestion than do commuters in Houston, Atlanta, and Chicago.
Correct answer: C
3) The Common Core is everywhere — and so is the Constitution
The next questions are based on this transcript of a speech by U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan in 1974, during the House hearings on impeachment for then-President Richard M. Nixon:
Today, I am an inquisitor. An hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction, of the Constitution.
"Who can so properly be the inquisitors for the nation as the representatives of the nation themselves?" "The subjects of its jurisdiction are those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men."4
The sample question notes that Jordan is quoting from the Federalist Papers. The new SAT will include either an excerpt from important American documents — the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, the Declaration of Independence — or from writing that draws on and responds to it, like Jordan's speech here. This lines up with the Common Core, which has a similar requirement for students to analyze those documents while they're in school.
And that's what we're talking about. In other words, [the jurisdiction comes] from the abuse or violation of some public trust.
It is wrong, I suggest, it is a misreading of the Constitution for any member here to assert that for a member to vote for an article of impeachment means that that member must be convinced that the President should be removed from office. The Constitution doesn't say that. The powers relating to impeachment are an essential check in the hands of the body of the legislature against and upon the encroachments of the executive.
The division between the two branches of the legislature, the House and the Senate, assigning to the one the right to accuse and to the other the right to judge — the framers of this Constitution were very astute. They did not make the accusers and the judges...the same person.
We know the nature of impeachment. We've been talking about it a while now. It is chiefly designed for the President and his high ministers to somehow be called into account. It is designed to "bridle" the executive if he engages in excesses. "It is designed as a method of national inquest into the conduct of public men." The framers confided in the Congress the power, if need be, to remove the President in order to strike a delicate balance between a President swollen with power and grown tyrannical, and preservation of the independence of the executive.
The nature of impeachment: a narrowly channeled exception to the separation of powers maxim. The Federal Convention of 1787 said that. It limited impeachment to high crimes and misdemeanors, and discounted and opposed the term "maladministration." "It is to be used only for great misdemeanors," so it was said in the North Carolina ratification convention. And in the Virginia ratification convention: "We do not trust our liberty to a particular branch. We need one branch to check the other."
...The North Carolina ratification convention: "No one need be afraid that officers who commit oppression will pass with immunity." "Prosecutions of impeachments will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community," said Hamilton in the Federalist Papers, number 65. "We divide into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused."* I do not mean political parties in that sense.
The drawing of political lines goes to the motivation behind impeachment; but impeachment must proceed within the confines of the constitutional term "high crime[s] and misdemeanors." Of the impeachment process, it was Woodrow Wilson who said that "Nothing short of the grossest offenses against the plain law of the land will suffice to give them speed and effectiveness. Indignation so great as to overgrow party interest may secure a conviction; but nothing else can."
Common sense would be revolted if we engaged upon this process for petty reasons. Congress has a lot to do: appropriations, tax reform, health insurance, campaign finance reform, housing, environmental protection, energy sufficiency, mass transportation. Pettiness cannot be allowed to stand in the face of such overwhelming problems. So today we're not being petty. We're trying to be big, because the task we have before us is a big one.
In lines 34-37 ("Prosecutions...sense"), what is the most likely reason Jordan draws a distinction between two types of "parties"?5
Although it is fairly good at predicting students' grades in college, the SAT doesn't really test whether you're a good student or what you've learned in school. (And high school grades are better at predicting college grades than SAT scores are.) This question is similar to what the Common Core expects students to work on during the school day. It's another way the new SAT is supposed to better line up with what students are learning in class.
a) To counter the suggestion that impeachment is or should be about partisan politics
b) To disagree with Hamilton's claim that impeachment proceedings excite passions
c) To contend that Hamilton was too timid in his support for the concept of impeachment
d) To argue that impeachment cases are decided more on the basis of politics than on justice
Correct answer: A
Which choice provides the best evidence for the answer to the previous question?6
This is the equivalent of "show your work" on a math problem. And forcing students to back up their answers with evidence from the text is a major focus of the Common Core. But there's one obvious issue: The SAT is still a purely multiple-choice test, at least on the verbal questions. So the challenge is to write questions that make students demonstrate that they understand why they answered the way they did, without giving away the actual answer.
a) Lines 10-12 ("It...office")
b) Lines 15-17 ("The division...astute")
c) Lines 38-40 ("The drawing...misdemeanors")
d) Lines 45-47 ("Congress...transportation")
Correct answer: C
4) Writing questions about style, not just grammar
His fine brushwork conveys detailed street-level activity: a peanut vendor pushing his cart on the sidewalk, a pigeon pecking for crumbs around a fire hydrant, an old man tending to a baby outside a doorway. His broader brush strokes and sponge-painted shapes create majestic city skylines, with skyscrapers towering in the background, bridges connecting neighborhoods on either side of a river, and delicately painted creatures, such as a tiny, barely visible cat prowling in the bushes of a park. To art critics and fans alike, these city scenes represent the innovative spirit of twentieth-century urban Modernism.
The writer wants to complete the sentence with a third example of a detail Kingman uses to create his majestic city skylines. Which choice best accomplishes this goal?7
The SAT writing section used to focus mostly on grammar and punctuation, or rewording extremely awkward sentences. This is a much higher-level question, although also a somewhat confusing one. (The online test argues that only "D" continues to contribute to the theme of "majesty.")
a) NO CHANGE
b) exquisitely lettered street and storefront signs.
c) other details that help define Kingman's urban landscapes.
d) enormous ships docking at busy urban ports.
Correct answer: D
5) If you want to pass, you have to understand algebra
In the equation above, what is the value of k?8
Correct answer: B
6) More real-world word problems than ever before
The toll rates for crossing a bridge are $6.50 for a car and $10 for a truck. During a two-hour period, a total of 187 cars and trucks crossed the bridge, and the total collected in tolls was $1,338. Solving which of the following systems of equations yields the number of cars, x, and the number of trucks, y, that crossed the bridge during the two hours?9
It's not just the verbal questions that are now put in context — all the math questions are too. The new SAT has many more word problems than the old version that are supposed to force students to think mathematically by coming up with a mathematical model for a situation.
a) x + y = 1,338
6.5x + 10y = 187
b) x + y = 187
6.5x + 10y = 1,338/2
c) x + y = 187￼
6.5x + 10y = 1,338
d) x + y = 187
6.5x + 10y = 1,338 x 2
Correct answer: C
7) The essay doesn't care about your opinion10
Read this excerpt from a New York Times op-ed,11 considering how Dana Giola uses:
Even the essay question is now based on reading and interpreting a longer excerpt from a published work. The basic question will be the same on every future SAT, although the passage students are supposed to read and interpret will be different every time.
—Evidence,13 such as facts or examples, to support claims
–Reasoning to develop ideas and connect claims and evidence
—Stylistic or persuasive appeals,14 such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add power to the ideas expressed.
Write an essay in which you explain how Gioia builds an argument to persuade his audience that the decline of reading in America will have a negative effect on society.15
The SAT essay used to care a lot more about students' opinions and experiences, asking questions like, "Does creativity matter in today's world?" That's all gone now, in favor of the kind of essay question that students will be asked to answer in college.
In your essay, analyze how Gioia uses one or more of the features in the directions that precede the passage (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of his argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.16
This is also a big change — the old essay format rewarded irrelevancy and length. One teacher instructed his students who were hoping for a better score when retaking the test to include advanced vocabulary like "myriad" and "plethora," minute details (whether or not they were factually accurate), and quotes from historical figures. Their essays weren't any better argued, but their scores went up.